Category Archives: Diversity with a Twist

Book Review: Creole Religions of the Caribbean

A book I’ve been meaning to review for a while is Creole Religions of the Carribean.

Obviously, this is not a linguistics book, although there is some linguistic information within it. Rather is an anthropological introduction to the different religions in the Caribbean that have arisen since the arrival of Europeans and Africans to the region.Each chapter covers a different religion including Santería/Orisha (Cuba), Voudou (Haiti), Rastafarianism (Jamaica) and others.

Most of the practices covered in the book are various blends of Christian and African traditions and are generally practiced by non-elites. They include practices which generally get either bad press or is very distorted coverage in the U.S. such as Voudou (or “voodoo”), Cuban Santería, Rastaferianism (which Bob Marley followed) and others.

What this book does is to describe each practice objectively with the same dignity as might be given to Shinto, Buddhism, Judaism and other religions not familiar to mainstream America. I find this valuable for understanding the context of different practices and the people who follow them.

Santería (Orisha) and Voudou

A general theme of the religions described is that they were developed within Caribbean slave communities (or their descendants). As a result, many are a blend of polytheistic West African traditions merged with many Christian elements. In fact, I was fascinated to see how well scholars have been able to trace the African elements back to original cultures such as the Yoruba (Orisha/Santería) and the Fon kingdom of Benin (Voudou).

For Santería and Voudou, the results are that West African deities are merged with Christian saints, but with personalities and rituals that might be more fitting with Greco-Roman gods. For instance one of the Voudou lwa (holy spirita) is Admiral Agwé whose domain is the sea. He is often represented as either a naval officer (with a pith helmet), a ship, including both boats with blue or green oars and steamships, and occasionally tridents similar to Poseidon.

And like these older traditions, practitioners may leave offerings, including an animal sacrifice. If you’ve ever wondered how traditional “pagan” religions like the Greco-Roman or Norse traditions would be practiced today…these religions provide a clue. It was different from what most people practice today in the West and Middle East.

The descriptions of the religions also trace changes from the original African systems to the Caribbean system as reactions to the new conditions of being oppressed in a foreign land. One example is that agriculture gods were not maintained in Santería because “Why sacrifice for a bountiful harvest to benefit an exploitative slave master? (p:34)” Another change was that a war god Changó became a spirit of justice. In this light, it’s probably no accident that Voudou is associated with terrible rituals of vengeance. It’s probably the only side that devotees would use to interact with their oppressors.

Fortunately, the book describes a more humorous side of both Voudou and Santería. For instance, both have a feminine love spirit similar to Aphrodite, but today described as a flirty biracial beauty who has a favorite perfume in Voudou (Anaïs-Anaïs). The Santería tradition further recounts a tale of how she came from West Africa to give her people comfort, but lightened her skin tone so that she could belong to everyone.

Rastafarianism

I should add that the Rastafari movement is different in that it is not an adaptation of West African polytheistic traditions to the Christian Caribbean. Rather it developed in the 1930s and is more closely related to Christianity. The religion finds inspiration from Ethiopian Christian/Jewish traditions and is named after Ras Tafari (Prince Tafari) of Ethiopia who was crowned as the Emperor of the Ethiopian Kingdom, Haile Selassie.

Haile Selassie and Ethiopia were considered sacred because 1) Ethiopia remained free of European domination for almost all of its history and 2) Ethiopia can claim a Judeo-Christian tradition lasting several millennia. Thus Rastafarianism is an attempt to claim a Christian based religion but with more ties to Africa.

The general source controversy with this belief is the use of marijuana within different rituals (similar to the use of peyote in some Native American cultures). Sometimes it is what it is.

Adapting to New Needs

These religions are fascinating from an anthropological perspective, but I think what I take most is the resilience of the people who practice these religions. In the face of horrific oppression and poverty, these people found a way to use their spirituality to find comfort and strength while preserving important elements of their culture. It’s a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit.

Aspirated Nasal in Gran Torino Eastwood Movie

The recent Clint Eastwood movie Gran Torino is a very interesting character study, but is also notable for giving a demonstration of a voiceless or aspirated nasal.

If you don’t know the plot, Eastwood plays a retired Detroit auto worker Walt Kowalsky with politically incorrect views on a lot of things, including his Asian neighbors (fortunately, he learns toleration, but in an interestingly unsentimental manner). It turns out that his neighbors are part of the Hmong culture as one of the younger women Sue Lor (played by Ahney Her) explains to Clint.

In fact, she even says the name “Hmong” where “hm” is a voiceless or aspirated /m/ which I will transcribe as /mʰ/ (and “ng” is really the velar nasal /ŋ/). In an aspirated nasal, the vocal cords do not vibrate continuously through the /m/ but pause at some point. From what I could tell, the vocal cords begin as non-vibrating, but then begin during the nasal. It would be consistent from how voiceless nasals are pronounced in other languages of Burma.

So the transcription for “Hmong” is actually or /mʰɔ̃ŋ/ (not sure about the tone), but to my ears it sounded like “Mong” /mɔ̃ŋ/ with a slight pause in the beginning. Very interesting. It’s another happy example of how linguistic sensitivity is slowly creeping into Hollywood.

P.S. I also have to respect a movie that shows how effectively a Hmong grandmother can spit a wad of tobacco. Needless to say, Walt was impressed in spite of himself.

Book Review: Indians in Pennsylvania

As I’ve commented before, it’s hard to find materials which help you understand what this continent was like politically before the Europeans arrived on the scene. We still tend to think that Prehistory is “No History”. But one book which does a decent job is Indians in Pennsylvania by Paul A. Wallace, a volume I happened to pick up in one of the Pennsylvania museums.

Book Product Details (from Amazon.com)

Paperback: 200 pages
Publisher: Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission; 2 Rev Sub edition (April 2000)
ISBN-10: 0892710179
ISBN-13: 978-0892710171

Cultural History

As the book title suggests, the focus is on the tribes who inhabited Pennsylvania at the time when Europeans were beginning their settlement. However, because the Native American political geography differed from later U.S. geography, the content actually covers activity in a larger part of the region including New York, Maryland, Ohio, New Jersey and sometimes further afield. It’s actually a decent introduction to what cultures were inhabiting the entire region.

The map alone of “common trails” crossing multiple state boundaries makes it clear how much inter-tribal contact there was in that era.

The first section describes the culture and traditions of the different tribes. Most of the attention in this section is given to the Delaware (Lenape) peoples, but there is also quite a bit of information about the Iroquoian Confederacy, the Susquehannocks, the Shawnee and other tribes. However, I would say that this volume is centered on the fate of the Delaware peoples.

Like many other Eastern tribes, the Delaware generally lived in settled villages and practiced agriculture. Wallace also notes that they were a group of culturally affiliated tribes sharing a similar heritage/language. The rest of the section describes what is known of Delaware spirituality, child rearing, marriage, entertainment and other aspects of culture.

Political History

The second section provides a chronological account of known Native political events as recorded by European settlers and tribal memory. It’s as well that the Delaware were a primary focus, because although they were settled in New Jersey, southern New York and Eastern Pennsylvania, they were eventually persuaded to migrate westward to Ohio and beyond.

Interestingly, the pressures on the Delaware were sometimes from other tribes as from Europeans (although multiple unfavoriable treaties with European powers did not help). At this time, the Iroquoian Confederacy was coming into its own as a regional superpower and expanding south, all of which caused a certain amount of political instability (for instance, although the Delaware were recognized by the Iroquoian as a “respected nation”, they were not full members of the Confederacy). Wallace’s thesis is that a lot of William Penn’s Native American policy was actually geared towards détente with the Confederacy. The Confederacy, in turn, was trying to negotiate their sphere between France and England – it sounds positively Balkan.

Eventually, of course European-native relations completely broke down in the region, but this book argues that native politics had a role to play.

Critique

The main point to consider is that this volume was written in 1981, which is definitely “a while ago” (over 25 years), was based on the first volume from 1961 (45+ years). As a result, this volume misses newer findings, such as the Paleoindian sites like Meadowcroft from (ca. 14,000 BCE). I would assume that there have been advances in studies of the Delaware, Iroquoian Confederacy and other tribes of the Mid-Atlantic. Still, I suspect this is as good a place to begin as any.

Also, it is worth remembering that it is a “Delaware-centric” work. That’s not to say that the information is inaccurate, just that there may be pieces about the other tribes missing.

Globalization and Minority Languages

You might think that the pan-global economy and culture would be dangerous for minority languages, but here’s an interesting article that claims that some speakers are looking back to their roots as a way to resist globalization.
http://icwales.icnetwork.co.uk/news/politics-news/2007/10/25/welsh-revival-may-be-a-reaction-to-globalisation-91466-20004034/
That is, the more the culture becomes “Standardized”, the more people are looking for ways to create regional quirks, including resurrecting of regional languages like Welsh, Catalan and even Occitan, Walloon and Breton.
Even in the U.S. we see the development of new regional varieties such as a more pronounced versions of Great Lakes English, Canadian English, Hispanicized English and Californian/West Coast English. Given that the U.S. has been watching the same TV networks for 50 years now, this is unexpected.
I think there’s something to this theory, because we are also seeing trends like regional foods cuisines (e.g. using regional ingredients) and an interest in indigenous crafts like knitting, woodworking and quilting.
I guess there are many ways to defy Gapification with both food and grammar.

A “Wakeup Call” on Anti-Rap Outrage

If you’re over 15 and have been awake in the past decade, you know that many people object to the content of many “rap” (or hip-hong) songs. Most adults who object are concerned about the overt violence, sex and sometimes gender discrimination. It’s a concern that spans the mainstream political spectrum also – Both NPR and Fox News have had stories (many many stories) about this issue.
And I have to agree that in many cases that I do have the same gut reaction to many of these lyrics. I’m really not sure how comfortable I would be with my (hypothetical) teenagers listening to gangsta rap. Yet rap artists have defended themselves by appealing to “satire” in some cases and “lifestyle” in other cases.
For instance Nelson George defended Eminem’s negative portrayal of the gay community as an expression of “the unease a lot of young men have about their sexual identity”. Now, at first glance, it seems like a far stretch…but two recent songs have made me question this assumption.
Recently Carrie Underwood came up with a lovely country western ditty “Before He Cheats” (Second Life Version) about an angry girlfriend smashing the car of her cheating boyfriend. Of course this is nothing in comparison to Maroon 5’s “Wakeup Call” the epic of a man killing the man who’s been sleeping with his girlfriend. Interestingly, Maroon 5’s singer “does not feel so bad” for his dirty deed.
Now here we have to non-rap artists describing second degree murder in one case and destruction of personal property in another (surely not a healthy way to resolve relationship differences).
BUT WHERE IS THE OUTRAGE? My god people, Maroon 5 is talking about murder here. Why aren’t taking Maroon 5 and Carrie Underwood to task for these outrageous lyrics?
And so, I now believe that those rap artists who have been complaining about discrimination may actually have a point. For some reason mainstream American is willing to categorize these two songs as “dark humor” while a song like “Cop Killer” will evoke total outrage. What is the reason for this?
I doubt I will have a good answer, but let me speculate anyway.
1) One answer could be race, but I think that’s too simplistic. Eminem is white and still targeted by criticism. Similarly, many African Americans like Bill Cosby are as concerned about gangsta rap as others.
2) Could it be that people associate violence with the inner city, but not with the country or the suburbs? That could be part of it – although it’s a foolish error on the part of society. I have done my time in rural America, and there’s plenty of crime and violence out there too (including a paid hit). It’s not that far a stretch to imagine a country girl being “inspired” to slash a tire or a suburban boy to kill his rival in love. And remember that Columbine was a crime of the suburbs.
Yet America still tends to think of places beyond the inner city as “safer”. This is, after all, the origin of “white flight” is citizens moving from the city to the suburbs or beyond. So though I don’t think there’s straightforward racial discrimination, I would go for inner city discrimination as part of the paradox.
3) Could it just be the sound? Carrie Underwood has a charmingly sassy but melodic delivery for her song, and Maroon 5 is known for being rock, but not “too hard.” The lead singer still manages to croon more than growl.
I have noticed that pleasant or “off-track” musical delivery is a good way to send some seriously twisted messages through an unsuspecting audience. Few people in the 1980s realized that Springstein’s “Born in the USA” was a Vietnam protest song – it sounded too much like a good patriotic rocker!
I don’t think people are deceived by the lyrical content of Maroon 5 or Carrie Underwood, but at heart, they sound so melodic, that maybe we just can’t take it as seriously as say…gangsta rap. In addition, the video of “Wake Up Call” shows the perpetrator dying in the electric chair – there is supposed an ironic message here. Carrie Underwood really describes “innocent” would-be tramps hanging out in bars with perfect detail. You know EXACTLY the kind of girl her boyfriend is sleeping with.
On the other hand, gangsta rap is musically constructed with techno loops and rough, staccato prose delivery. How many times have we heard “that’s not music”? As a generalization, many people who listen to rap do NOT listen to Carrie Underwood and Maroon 5 (and vice-versa).
People who already hate the music will not be more tolerant of the lyrics.
So in the end, it may also be about musical discrimination. The mainstream audience may be somewhat “frightened” aurally by rap music because of its menacing style – so adding content about sex and violence just ups the ante. Instead of interpreting lyrics as black humor (or puerile humor), the lyrics are interpreted as a 100% serious manifesto on death and destruction.
Which brings us back to the original question? Are any rap lyrics society dislike really “satire”? Actually….yes in some cases. I remember when Two Live Crew came up with the raunchiest lyrics ever (up to that point). But once I listened to the album, I ended up laughing. Did he really expect he would pick up girls with those lines? No, I think he was expressing young horniness in it’s most concentrated form (pee-ew). Plus, they had a great parody of the inane fraternity party song…that I bet was probably really popular at fraternities for a while.
A this pont, I have to confess that many of Eminem’s and other rap videos have made me laugh…just like the Maroon 5 video, and I know Eminem does have songs of introspection. I also know Eminem has met would be “innocent” bar tramps, just like Carrie Underwood. Some “misogynist” lyrics are due to dumb girls being stupid (sorry ladies – I’m calling this like I see it).
Gangsta rap does rely on violence, but it also gave us the first inner city barbecue…with joints. It really may be a commentary on their lives. And if you don’t think rappers aren’t satiric, just read the ode to expensive sneakers on Nelly’s Air Force Ones

So, oddly, I do think some of what we’ve been complaining about could actually be genuine satire (or at least some social commentary).
On the other hand, some of Eminem’s lyrics about killing his wife will be VERY difficult to explain to his daughter when she grows up.

United by HGTV?

We often talk about the social divisions within America, but I do know one place where we all seem to come together…house renovation!
HGTV is the primary vehicle for the house renovation show, but there’s also Discovery Home, TLC, DIY, BBC America, the Bravo Top Designer reality show, that ABC show I’ve never actually watched and sometimes a dream kitchen special from Food TV. There are several things that make this genre a rich, but semi-loopy vision of a diverse utopia.
For one thing, I’ve seen all types of house owners featured on these shows – Anglos, Latinos, Asian Americans, African Americans, Afro-Caribbean Americans, mixed race couples and same sex couples. If they have a decorating dream, they can be the star of their own home decor episode.
Locations are primarily in the United States, but more and more you do see shows set outside the United States. Apparently everyone in the Western World over a certain income level is united in a desire for authentic detailing, punchy wall colors and brand-new kitchen appliances. I’ve also learned much more about the British housing market. I didn’t realize that the 99-year lease was applied to anything other than the colony of Hong Kong.
The other interesting thing is how many diverse people are latching onto a “family-friendly” genre which has practically no sex, no violence and very little politics. Who knew this was even possible? My mother and aunt listen to politically opposite talk radio channels, but both are avid watchers of home decor TV. If you run out of weather conversation, a safe bet is that a reference to house renovation or house buying will keep the conversation moving (especially once you’ve gotten out of college).
What’s the drawback? Well there is the fact that not everyone lives with their dream kitchen and may not get one anytime soon. It is a little odd to see rich expatriate Americans searching for their dream resort homes in Central America.
On the other hand, where else can you see people of any background molding their dream homes – even their microscopic rental apartments?
Somehow though HGTV makes the American dream a little more approachable. After all, all you really need to make your housing dreams come true is sweat, good flea market finds and a fresh can paint.