Friday, 24 October 2014

“Feast of the Mau Mau: Christianity, Conjure and the Origins of Soul Food”

On Wednesday 24th October, the Andrew Hook Centre was delighted to welcome Dr Anthony Stanonis (Queen’s Belfast University) for the fourth seminar in the 2014-15 series. Stanonis is the author of Creating the Big Easy: New Orleans and the Emergence of Tourism, 1918-1945 (2006) and editor of Dixie Emporium: Tourism, Foodways, and Consumer Culture in the American South (2008). His forthcoming book is entitled Faith in Bikinis: Politics and Leisure in the Coastal South Since the Civil War. The topic of the discussion was the religious origin of soul food and the centrality of conjure in African-American foodways.

Dr Stanonis began his presentation by playing Louis Jordan’s 1949 song ‘Beans and Cornbread’, which offered a commentary on American race relations, using black and white food staples as a metaphor. Stanonis argued that the song celebrates togetherness and abundance in its final call for interracial unity: ‘We should get up every morning and hang out together like sister and brothers/
Every Saturday night we should hang out like chitterlings and potato salad.’ What connects each food pairing in Jordan’s song is the magical element of conjure or, more specifically, the belief that certain foodstuffs could elicit a supernatural effect, often to the benefit of racial harmony. With this introduction, Stanonis stressed the importance of examining African American music alongside African religious studies in order to fully understand the origins of soul food.

Central to Stanonis’s argument was the notion that, with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the concept of soul food was reconfigured as the black culinary aesthetic was used to promote cultural nationalism and racial pride. In doing so, Stanonis stated that the important legacy of soul food, with its roots in conjure practices, was obscured, as indicated in the apparent void of references to conjure in scholarly analysis relating to African American foodways and culture. In the context of the 1960s, black leaders thus distanced themselves from conjure and, more generally, voodoo – in an effort to demonstrate African American respectability and dedication to Christianity. Soul food thus achieved popular status in the 1960s as it came to denote togetherness, shared heritage and cultural assimilation within a rapidly changing racial landscape. However, in this form, it was stripped of its supernatural folkway traditions.

Dr Stanonis also indicated that conjure practices in the United States had often been stigmatised and, by default, surrounded by secrecy. Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her anthropological study of conjure Mules and Men (1935) that, ‘Nobody knows for sure how many thousands in America are warmed by the fire of hoodoo because the worship is bound in secrecy. It is not the accepted theology of the nation, and so believers conceal their faith. The practice is shrouded in profound silence.’ In order to understand how this came to be, Stanonis turned his attention to the religious origins of soul food and conjure. African slaves brought with them to the New World their own food customs and spiritual traditions. In the popular and national imagination, religious practices such as conjure and hoodoo, which blended African folk belief with Protestant folk belief, became synonymous with voodoo – a more organised religious practice that mixed Catholicism with African religious traditions. White Americans thus conflated African American folk practice under voodoo and increasingly viewed such practices as savage, often highlighting the cannibalistic impulse of both religions, from transubstantiation to records of African trade in human flesh for consumption. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, white representations of African Americans as savage and superstitious led black leaders and the black middle class to disavow conjure while embracing more mainstream and hegemonic forms of Christianity.

In what proved to be one of the most illuminating aspects of the discussion, Dr Stanonis turned his attention to the role played by jazz and blues musicians in giving voice to spiritual beliefs often denied by racial spokesmen. Stanonis stressed that the ‘soul’ celebrated by black musicians had much in common with soul cooking – both were improvised and possessed a mixed religious heritage. Jazz and blues thus became an important platform in the expression of African American foodways. As the twentieth century progressed, both black and white performers embraced conjure with the aim of subverting the traditionally negative associations. These artistic references to conjure paved the way for a closer examination of the supernatural dimension of soul food, as found within recipes. Stanonis recounted several recipes which claimed to ward off police or to win at cards and dice. Interestingly, some foodstuffs received particular attention amongst conjurers, as indicated by one believer: ‘‘When you peel onions in your home, your supposed to put sugar and salt on the peelings and put in the stove and burn it. That’s keepin’ down the fuss in the house. And if you have any fuss there, put salt on the onion and burn it up.’ Ultimately, Stanonis argued of the importance of conjure at the grassroots level in providing an emotional bulwark against poverty and discrimination. Whilst these conjure practices may on the surface seem like mere superstitions, they were in fact powerful remedies for the African American community during slavery and later, in post-emancipation periods of racial discrimination and unrest. 

Dr Stanonis’s discussion of soul food and conjure in African American foodways was interesting and thought-provoking. In the question and answer session, issues were addressed such as the commercialisation voodoo and soul food on a national and international level. Whilst African American resistance to slavery and discrimination has, in recent decades, received much scholarly attention, Stanonis highlighted an area of study that has remained relatively untapped. By using music to illustrate key aspects of the discussion, Stanonis provided a lively and engaging structure to the presentation and maintained the interest of the audience throughout. In fusing together music studies alongside those of religion and African American society and culture, Dr Stanonis facilitated a multi-disciplinary approach to the study of foodways and conjure which, as he demonstrated, in this context came hand in hand.  

By Rebecca Dunbar
PGR at The University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Dr Lloyd Pratt  (University of Oxford): ‘Heroic Reading in Emerson and Thoreau’. This is in collaboration with the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow, and forms part of the ‘English Visiting Speaker Series’, co-sponsored by the Andrew Hook Centre. It will be held on Thursday 20th November 2014 in Room 202, 4 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!

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