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"Dere Were No Place in Heaven for Him, an' He Were Not Desired in Hell": Igbo Cultural

Beliefs in African American Folk Expressions

Author(s): Jennifer Hildebrand
Source: The Journal of African American History, Vol. 91, No. 2 (Spring, 2006), pp. 127-
Published by: Association for the Study of African American Life and History
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Jennifer Hildebrand*

The Spirits and human beings are in constant exchanges, but the [outsider]
does not know.1

Very few historians have explored the survival of ethnic identities and
beliefs among enslaved Africans in North America and their descendants.
W. E. B. Du Bois made a subtle reference to this form of cultural persistence
in the United States when he wrote in 1903 that the black church was not, at
first, "by any means Christian nor definitely organized; rather it was an
adaptation and mingling of heathen rites among the members of each
plantation."2 I embrace the idea that there was not a single African identity,
but a "mingling of heathen rites"?a significant carryover of ethnic identities
that had been fundamental in the lives of Africans captured and forcibly
brought to the United States.
My goal is to better understand the ethnic components that ultimately
blended together in the African American community, and to emphasize that
not all markers of ethnic identity needed to be jettisoned to make such a
blending possible. This essay will address the ethnic background of Igbos
enslaved in the United States, demonstrating that Igbo culture left a lasting
impact on the folklore or wisdom of the enslaved and their descendants, well
into the 20th century.3 The evidence for such an argument has long been
available in the form of folktales collected by E. C. L. Adams. These
folktales, especially "The King Buzzard," "The Yellow Crane,"
"Transmigration," and "Ole Man Rouse," would have had multiple levels of
meaning in America. To the enslaved Africans who heard them, these tales
surely expressed the wrongs inherent in slavery. But to members of the Igbo
ethnic group, these tales also promised that the system of justice handed down
from their ancestors survived, that life lasted longer than the time spent in a
single earthly body, and that the ancestors would not overlook the sins of the
master class.

Jennifer Hildebrand is Assistant Professor of African American History at State University of New York,


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128 The Journal of African American History

That these tales were steeped in significance for Igbo-descended people

and other Africans of various other ethnic backgrounds attest to the fact that
"syncretism" took place in the United States. Anthropologist Melville
Herskovits employed the term to refer to change that occurred over time as
two (or more) different cultures blended those elements unique to each. In
Herskovits's parlance, syncretism involved an exchange between African and
Euro-American cultures; his goal was to emphasize the long neglected and
often denied African contributions to the various cultures in the Americas.4
Indeed, syncretism must have taken place on at least two levels. Before
African and European cultures could blend together, a somewhat unified
African American culture had to be shaped out of various African ethnic
components. Detailed examination of these four tales with Igbo ethnic
components opens a window onto this process, allowing us to see how a tale
might preserve specific ethnic beliefs at the same time that it held meaning
for the wider African American community. The creation of a Pan-African
identity in the United States, then, involved two levels of syncretism; and
neither of those Mendings required that ethnic components be discarded
entirely from the mix.


Though U. B. Phillips in American Negro Slavery, published in 1918,

mentioned the various ethnic backgrounds of Africans brought to the
Americas, he did so in no useful way.5 In the work of later historians, the
references to ethnic identity or background virtually disappeared. While
African ethnic influences in other parts of the Americas were (and are)
confirmed routinely, most historians (though by no means all) have dismissed
African ethnic identities in North America, sometimes through outright
statements, and other times through omission. A few scholars in other
disciplines provided exceptions to this general trend. In The Myth of the
Negro Past, published in 1941, Herskovits described in this way one of the
myths that he planned to challenge: "Since the Negroes were brought from all
parts of the African continent, spoke diverse languages, represented greatly
differing bodies of custom, and, as a matter of policy, were distributed in the
New World so as to lose tribal identity, no least common denominator of
understanding or behavior could have possibly been worked out by them." He
also challenged as myth the idea that African cultures "were so savage and
relatively so low in the scale of human civilization" as to induce enslaved
Africans to adopt those customs of their much-advanced masters.6
Before the 1980s most historians failed to take their cues from the
anthropologist's argument, and they would have agreed with cultural
anthropologist Roger Bastide's 1967 statement: "We find that there is hardly
a single African tribe that failed to provide a contingent for the New World.
Wolof, Manding, Bambara, Bissago, Agni: the list is interminable. Yet these
Negroes, for the most part, have left no surviving trace of their original

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Igbo Cultural Beliefs in African American Folk Expressions 129

native cultures."7 Among European colonialists, the tendency was to provide

a fleeting reference to the ethnic groups among Africans enslaved in the
United States, but then to shift the discussion to the creation of a shared
African American culture, suggesting that African ethnicities were lost almost
immediately.8 Three notable exceptions to this pattern exist. Historians
Peter Wood and Daniel Littlefield both gave sustained attention to African
ethnicity during the colonial period, but their emphasis was primarily on the
agricultural and technological knowledge that certain groups brought to North
America.9 More recently, historian Douglas Chambers demonstrated a lasting
Igbo ethnic marker in the use of (or at least suspected use of) poison in the
death of Ambrose Madison at Montpelier in 1732.10 Cultural historians
focusing on the 19th century seem even further from contemplating African
ethnic identities.11 Robert Starobin deserves mention as an historian of 19th
century America who did not overlook ethnicity when he emphasized the
importance of ethnic origins to the organization of the Denmark Vesey
The major challenge to the prevailing position that denied the persistence
of ethnic traits in the United States came in historian Sterling Stuckey's 1987
Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America.
Stuckey began his book by declaring that "the final gift of African 'tribalism'
in the 19th century was its life as a lingering memory in the minds of
American slaves." He observed that ethnic identity had been "the principal
avenue to black unity in antebellum America." He further argued that the
"ring shout," a circular dance intended to induce a trance-like state allowing
the dancer to reconnect spiritually with the ancestors, was "the key to
understanding" the way that enslaved Africans from a variety of ethnic
groups "achieved oneness in America."13
Undoubtedly, there are difficulties involved when discussing African
ethnic identities, and those difficulties are heightened when dealing with the
Igbo.14 The territory generally referred to as Igboland covers a wide expanse,
so that there were bound to have been internal social, linguistic, and religious
differences.15 Despite these challenges, many scholars are comfortable
discussing the Igbo as an ethnic group after providing certain caveats. While
noting that "all human societies have undergone continuous changes,"
Africanist A. E. Afigbo nonetheless asserted that the Igbo began to "emerge
as a distinct people" 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, and suggested that "by and
large scholars are becoming more and more impressed with the antiquity of
the societies concerned and with their stability over the centuries." Addressing
the impact of Europeans, he wrote, "I suggest that by the sixteenth century
Igbo society was already too ancient and too mature to be either easily
fractured or easily galvanized into revolutionary developmental effort by a
contact so indirect and so diffused as that with the European slavers along the
coast." Nigerian scholar EN. Obiechina described "the sense of common
identity of the Igbo, expressed in a common name, in a linguistic affinity (in
spite of the variety of dialects) and in basic common cultural traits (in spite

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130 The Journal of African American History

again of local variations)" as a "solidly based criterion for establishing the

intrinsicality of Igbo life and civilization." Historian Elizabeth Isichei
observed that while Igbos remained at home, they identified themselves
locally, with their village or community, but when they left or were forcibly
removed from Igbo territory, they developed "a sense of pan-Igbo identity."
Isichei concluded further that Igbo captives transported to the New World
"kept a strong sense of their Igbo identity, and gave 'help, care, and
instruction' to new arrivals from Igboland." "In Igbo," wrote Scottish
explorer, naturalist, and philologist W. B. Baikie in the 1850s, "each person
hails . . . from the particular district where he was born, but when away from
home, all are Igbo."16 While researchers have put forward a variety of
interpretations about Igbo cultural practices, many Igbo scholars and others
agree that this group shared specific religious and cultural traditions.
Indeed, despite the influence of diverse colonial powers on the continent,
African religious and cultural traditions have predominated. Father Donatus
Joseph Uroko Agbo, writing in 1993, complained that, "the obstacle [to full
Christian conversion of modern Igbos] lies in the ability of the Christian
Church to find a way by which the Igbo's devotion to their ancestors and
other benevolent spirits could be readjusted or [reoriented] solely to God."17
Missionaries in Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century made a
concerted effort to convert the native peoples, but slaveholders in the United
States rarely made concerted attempts at conversion until the 1830s, and
their attempts were not as successful as some scholars like to believe.18 Father
Agbo's observation speaks to the resilience of Igbo traditional religion in the
face of powerful adversaries, and it is not unreasonable to assume that such
cultural tenacity would also pertain to Igbo captives in America.
The number of such captives, described as "stunning" by historian Michael
Gomez, further strengthens the argument that the Igbo left an ethnic imprint
on North America. Gomez estimated that the Bight of Biafra, from which
Igbos originated, contributed "nearly one-quarter of the total number of
Africans imported into North America, placing it in a virtual first-place tie
with West Central Africa." Douglas Chambers estimated that Igbos totaled 80
percent?or perhaps more?of the number of Africans loaded onto slave
ships at the Bight of Biafra. Chambers also estimated that as many as 1.4
million Igbos were displaced and dispersed by the slave trade, and that "for the
most part" those Igbos were transported by the British to British colonial
America. The importance of this data to an argument regarding ethnic
continuities is heightened by Chambers's mode of discussing the form of
syncretism that took place in the United States: when analyzing the
Chesapeake, Chambers focused on "Igboization" of the region that
accompanied the Americanization of the enslaved.19
These considerations provide support for the notion that those cultural
and religious traditions found among Igbos in Africa would have remained a
significant aspect of their self-identity despite the abuses of physical
enslavement. To test this assertion, we turn to the examination of four tales

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Igbo Cultural Beliefs in African American Folk Expressions 131

collected in the 1920s by E. C. L. Adams, a South Carolinian and "maverick"

among fellow white southerners. Adams apparently earned the trust of the
African American men and women working his land. He was rewarded with
these tales that reflect "the relatively unexpurgated truth" about the nature of
his workers' lives, that reverberate with plantation lore; that cry out about the
wrongs of both slavery and 20th century race relations, and, as recorded by
Adams, catch the essence of both the Gullah and Congaree cultural traditions.
Literary critic Robert O'Meally argued that Adams became "privy to certain
insiders' lore" and became "an intimate within the world of predominantly
black experts."20 The tales tell harsh truths about slavery and portray black
men and women as real human beings, both saintly and sinful. While the
credit for authorship of these tales should remain with the African and
African American men and women who created and preserved them, Adams's
faithfulness as a recorder means that this collection provided a full and
complex perspective on southern black culture. Of greater import to this
essay was his care as a transcriber that allowed four tales with unmistakably
Igbo influences to be forever preserved in written form.


"The King Buzzard," "The Yellow Crane," "Transmigration," and "Ole

Man Rouse" provide markers which allow us to identify specific Igbo ethnic
beliefs among enslaved Africans and African Americans in the United States.
Each of these tales contains descriptions of a particular form of
transmigration: the passage of a human spirit into an animal's form after
death. At the most fundamental level, these tales reflect certain tenets found
within the African American community, traceable to the era of
enslavement, including a strong concern for the value of ?fe, an emphasis on
the community rather than the individual, and a powerful condemnation of
slavery.21 On another level, however, transmigration tales represented and
reinforced the spiritual worldview that was unique to the Igbo ethnic group,
encompassing birth, death, reincarnation, the world of the ancestors, and the
fate of individuals who violated the rules of the community.
In "The King Buzzard," Tad told a small group of men gathered at a
campfire that while walking along Big Alligator Hole he saw a buzzard, "de
nastiest lookin' thing I ever see." The smell of the creature filled his lungs and
Tad lunged at it to frighten it away. The buzzard responded by flying over
Tad's head, trying to vomit on him, "an' I see de leaf an' de grass wuh it fall
on dry up." Tad finally escaped, but observed to his friends that only God
could possibly know what the creature was. Yet the best source of information
was not God but African ancestors, for his friend Tom observed that he had
heard of the creature from his father, whose knowledge of it came from '"way
back in slavery time?'way back in Afica." The buzzard's body housed the
soul of an African chief who had sold his people into slavery for his own
profit. When the chief died, "dere were no place in heaven for him an' he

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132 The Journal of African American History

were not desired in hell," so as a punishment his soul was imprisoned in a

buzzard's body and would forever wander eating carrion.22
Limus and Saber had a similar experience on Crane Lake, related by Jube
in "The Yellow Crane." There Limus and Saber saw "a monster big crane, a
yaller crane," bigger than a man, and it looked as if "some kind of evil
sperrit" was looking out at Saber "through a crack in de side of he head." At
this point, their friend Kike stepped in to clarify matters, informing the
group that the lake had been called Crane Lake since "way back in slavery
time when my grand-daddy's pa been chillun." Even then it was "no place for
crane, scusin' [excusing] de big yaller crane . . . and dat ain't been no crane."
Like the buzzard, the crane Saber described to Jube was an animal body
housing a human spirit: the spirit so entombed had been a mulatto man,
trained as a doctor in a "furrin Ian' [foreign land]." The doctor used his skills
to kill his patients, especially his black patients, and then he would walk out
to the lake and "laugh at he own weeked [wicked] ways." He died on the lake,
and his spirit took up residence in the body of the crane.23
In "Transmigration," the laughing and talking of an owl seated on a tree
limb awakened Tad from a midday nap in the swamplands. Tad prepared
immediately to leave, but the owl asked him to wait, informing him that he
had been a friend of his grandfather "way back in slavery." When one of the
persons hearing the story noted that this would have been a good time to
depart, Tad agreed, observing "I had a mind to, but I ain' been able to." The
owl informed Tad that he had been the father of old man Smart Daniel and
that he had not lived well. Moreover, the owl said that he expected Tad would
transmigrate similarly into animal form upon the death of his human body,
perhaps implying that Tad had not lived as well as he should have. When the
owl started walking towards Tad, supposedly to give him a "spirit world sign,"
Tad broke free from his temporary paralysis, as he wanted neither to receive
a sign nor to have an old owl-man whispering in his ear.24
In "Ole Man Rouse," Cricket was out fishing when he noticed that things
seemed amiss. "The water ain't look right, an' the sky ain't look right, an' I
ain't like the soun' in the trees. . . . Dey is all kind of noise everywhere, an'
dey ain't no noise." Then he saw a man reach up out of the water and pull
himself onto a log where several yellow-bellied turtles were sunning
themselves. Suddenly, Cricket realized he was not looking at a man, but a
"coota"?turtle, in the Gullah dialect. He knew that a yellow-bellied turtle
could not possibly get as big as the creature he saw, but he also knew of no
other type of turtle that sat on logs. As Cricket drew closer, the big turtle
stepped into the water without causing the slightest splash. After Cricket
related this story to his friends, Peter explained that such incidents were
rather common at this particular watering hole: "Everything you see here
ain't sumpen [something]. Everything you hear ain't sumpen. It ain't natural."
The "coota," he continued, was the spirit of old man Rouse, a white man who
lived "in slavery-time." As he "had no heart when he sober," Peter observed,
"God knows what he had" when he was drunk. He brought black men and

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Igbo Cultural Beliefs in African American Folk Expressions 133

women to the lake to punish them "in slavery time" and "in freedom,"
concluding most punishments by drowning his victims. One day a group of
African Americans gathered together on the log where Cricket saw the yellow
bellies, and they pushed old man Rouse into the water. Each time he climbed
back up, they pushed him off again, "an' dey kep on pushin' him off till he
ain't clim' back." His spirit lived on at the lake.25
The transmigration of the spirits of evil men into animal form is the key
marker which allows us to recognize the Igbo foundations of "The Yellow
Crane," "Transmigration," "Ole Man Rouse," and "The King Buzzard." These
tales help us to understand the process of syncretization among Africans
enslaved in the United States. But in order to understand how Africans of
many ethnic groups created a shared black culture, we need to identify the
original components. My goal is to identify the cultural beliefs specific to the
Igbo. Only when they are recognized can we understand how Africans of
various backgrounds folded together their various beliefs; only then can we
identify what was retained, and what was lost.
The Igbo people believed in reincarnation?their word for it translates as
"a return to the world."26 However, this privilege was not guaranteed; one
must have lived a good life and died a good death. After death, the soul of a
good person generally became a spirit and traveled to the world of spirits to
await reincarnation within the souls of kinfolk. This helps to explain Igbos'
strong emphasis upon community: they maintained a strong connection to
their clan because they expected to return to it.27 Since reincarnation was a
privilege not extended to all, however, there had to be an explanation of what
happened to spirits not reincarnated. One possibility was that, for any number
of reasons, the body that had previously housed the spirit did not receive a
proper burial, dooming the spirit to wander as a ghost. The Igbo also believed
that as a punishment for extreme sins against the community, a man's spirit
could transmigrate, or transfer, into the body of an animal rather than being
reborn in human form. Each of the four tales considered here contains a
significant indicator of the presence of the Igbo belief in transmigration,
namely the depiction of a recognizably human spirit trapped inside an animal
as a punishment for wickedness in his most recent life.
The taletellers crafted their narrative very carefully, describing the human
and animal characteristics of each creature that their characters saw. In
"Transmigration," Tad observed an owl,

settin' on a limb of a dead snag right by me, an' he look right down in my eye and laugh
an' say, "Brother, is you restin'?" and I say, "I is been restin,1 but I done wid res' now. I is
lefferi here." An' he say, "Brother, hole on a minute." An' I look at him good, an' I see he
ain' no owl, but he been people, an' I get more intent on leffen. But dat old bird look like
he helt, an', my brothers, he looked dried up and weeked, an' then he say he been a friend
of my grandpa way back in slavery. 28

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134 The Journal of African American History

The storyteller first described Tad's initial perception of the owl, and then
related Tad's dawning realization that the owl was a human spirit trapped in
an animal's body. The selection of an owl as the animal into which the spirit
transmigrated is highly significant. Anthropologist P. Amaury Talbot
observed that near the Niger River, owls' heads were used to prepare evil
amulets; he later added that, "When an owl is heard to cry at night-time round
a compound, the people draw close together in the comforting circle of
firelight and whisper that it is the evil ghost of a mother deprived of
offspring, hovering round to seek whom of those blessed with piccans
[children] she may harm." Newbell Niles Puckett, a folklorist, and Suzanne
Blier, an art historian, both observed that traditionally many West Africans
associated owls with evil spirits because of their nocturnal habits.29 Tad
strengthened this connection by stating that "none un um [evil spirits] can
stand the light of day."30 He crafted his narrative so as to communicate his
awareness that this was more than just a human assuming animal form, as
some witches were believed to have the power to do. Smart Daniel's daddy did
not metamorphose physically, turning completely into an owl: "I look at him
good, an' I see he ain' no owl, but he been people." Perhaps Tad employed the
past tense?"he been people"?simply because he was telling his friends what
he saw in the past. But it is more likely that he meant that the spirit he saw
had, at one time, been a live person, but was now a spirit trapped in animal
form. The double image of a man trapped inside an owl certainly intimates
that the owl became the physical embodiment, but the spirit inside was that of
a man.
Moreover, the selection of the owl to house the transmigrated sp
allows us to understand the process of syncretism that took place betwe
Igbos and other African groups: since the owl was associated with evil sp
and death throughout West Africa, its selection as a symbol indicates that
tale, while best understood by Igbos, would have been accessible to m
descendants of West Africa. In what is now Sierra Leone, for example, t
Vais people "considered] the owl the king of all witches. . . . Whenever t
cry of this bird is heard they tremble with fear. It is said when an owl sits u
a home at least one of its [residents] is sure to die." The Tiv, an ethnic gr
located on the eastern side of Nigeria's middle forest belt, also associated
with witchcraft; they believed that the landing of an owl upon one's home
a sign that death was near. In one example, the unfortunate homeowner a
his father's family, '"Has my time come?'" His family promised him tha
had "yet long to live," but they all knew that if the owl continued to lodg
the roof, then their "protestations [would be in] vain" and that his death
a certainty.31 The association of owls with evil spirits and death assures
that West Africans of varied backgrounds would have understood much of
significance of this Igbo tale.
In "The Yellow Crane," Jube also indicated that a man's spirit h
transmigrated, this time into a huge yellow crane that frightened L
dreadfully. Jube called it a "natural crane," but described it in such a manner

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Igbo Cultural Beliefs in African American Folk Expressions 135

to evoke something very unnatural: "he been yaller wid eye like a goose, and
he been taller dan a man and he had a bill longer dan de handle of a
blacksmith's tongs." The bill had caught Limus's attention; he "noticed dat
good" because he saw the crane "open he bill and work it like he were
laughin'." The crane "twis' he head dis way and dat and he ain't make a sound,
but he wink he eye and ain't never shet it, but he half close it." To Limus, this
looked like "some kind of evil sperrit lookin' through a crack in de side of he
head." Limus began to fear that the "old bird" was going to give him "de
ague," a cold or flu, often associated with chills or shivering. Suddenly, the
crane began to approach Limus, and as it got closer, he studied it carefully.
"He look like a crane and he look like a man," Limus later related to his
friends, "like a ole man yaller wid a beard, and he look evil and he look like de
father of death. ... He look more sinful dan sin. He look satisfied and he look
like he were in misery."32
Like Tad in "Transmigration," Jube differentiated between a "natural"
animal and this crane, inhabited by an evil spirit. He too recognized that he
had encountered a man's spirit encased in animal form. The "evil spirit" was
inside the crane, "lookin1 through a crack in de side of he head." The spirit of
the man and the body of the crane each retained enough of their individual
characteristics for Jube to realize that a man "more sinful dan sin" had
Cricket had a similar experience when he encountered the spirit of Ole
Man Rouse. He saw a man "put he han' up out de water an' lif hesself up on de
log." Initially the man was "stoop[ed] over" with his "head ben' down," but
then Cricket saw him "stretch heself an' draw heself up, an' I get a little
closer, an' I look and it ain't a man, it a coota [turtle]." Just as the yellow
crane was not a "natural" animal, Cricket knew that he had seen something
supernatural, because "I know a yaller belly don't get dat big, an' it ain't no
other kind of coota sets on a log." Cricket approached the creature, then
suddenly "de big coota steps off de log an' wey he steps in de water he don'
make no stirbance an' he don't make no soun'. He don't make no riffle, an' de
water smooth as glass." When he returned his gaze to the log, Cricket noticed
that the little yellow bellies were gone, so he turned his boat around, and as he
left the area, he saw another sight that left him completely disoriented: "a
lizzard run in a hollow tree an' he turn roun' an' peep out an open he mout'
and laugh, an' I ain't know if he a lizzard, an' I ain't know if he laugh, en I
come out, an' I feel like I ain't livin'."33
Again, the creature exhibited a duality of appearance: it had the qualities
of both a man and a turtle, but the creature's lack of substance suggested that
Cricket saw a transmigrated spirit, one that could pass through water without
making a "stirbance." Excluded from the land of the ancestors by his sin,
while, at the same time, not a part of the physical world due to the death of
his body, this being seemed to inhabit the space between the two in which
Igbos believed spirits of the dead were trapped.

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136 The Journal of African American History

"The King Buzzard" likewise described a transmigrated spirit, but in a

slightly different way. Once again Tad saw an unearthly creature, this time
along the edge of Big Alligator Hole. Suddenly,

de air been stink; an' I walk on an' I see sump'n riz up in front er me bigger 'an a man. An'
he spread he whing out an' say, "Uuh! " He eye been red an' he de nastiest lookin' thing I
ever see. He stink in my nostr?s. He so stink, he stink to my eye an' my year. An' I look at
him an' he been eat a dead hog right dere in de nigh time. I ain' never see buzzard settin' on
a carcass in de night 'fore dis. An' he look so vigus, he look like he ain' care ef he stay dere
an' fight or no.34

When Tad's friend Tom listened to this story, he contributed knowledge

handed down from his father which indicated that Tad had indeed seen a
transmigrated spirit. "I hear 'bout dat ole thing 'fore dis," Tom related. "My
pa tell me dat 'way back in slavery time?'way back in Af ica?dere been a
nigger, an' he been a big nigger. He been de chief er he tribe, an' when dem
white folks was ketchin' nigger for slavery, dat ole nigger nuse to entice 'em
into trap."35
The selection of the buzzard as the focus of the tale became the indicator
of a transmigrated spirit. Newbell Niles Puckett argued that because the
buzzard eats carrion, West Africans generally, and therefore enslaved Africans
and their descendants whose familial roots lay in West Africa, believed that it
was "closely associated with the dead?closely enough to receive the spirit of
the departed." P. Amaury Talbot has provided evidence demonstrating that
Igbos shared this belief: "often . . . they [evil spirits] were thought to wander
about, attempting to satisfy their hunger by feeding on offal." Moreover,
Talbot observed that the Okigwi Igbo believed that God did not allow bad
spirits "to do much harm to the living." That statement would seem to
inform Tom's comment that "one er he [the buzzard's] punishment is dat he
evil beak an' claw shall never tech no livin' thing." 36 As noted above in
regards to the choice of the owl as the animal housing the transmigrated
spirit, the storyteller's use of a buzzard, an animal associated with the dead by
many West African groups, likely facilitated the process of syncretization
between Igbos and other West Africans.
The conclusion that these tales exemplify an Igbo influence is
strengthened by the storytellers' awareness that the transmigrated spirits were
those of evil men being punished for abominable sins. Among Igbos, a proper
burial was the key to reincarnation and reflected the moral status of the
person being buried. Those who lived a bad life or died a bad death would not
receive that proper burial: the Igbo ancients taught that "[i]t is how one lives
that he dies; whatever one has done follows after him." African philosopher
P. E. Aligwekwe wrote, "The world of the good spirits and of the ancestors
was made uniquely for the good. The blameworthy . . . could not enter there
after death. For the good spirits and the ancestors would send them back

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Igbo Cultural Beliefs in African American Folk Expressions 137

without delay to the world of the living where, in the form of evil spirits,
they would live always in misery and suffering."37
Even a person of seemingly pure heart could die an unnatural death, and
that might indicate the interference of a "malignant spirit," according to
ethnographer Arthur Leonard. The cause of death, therefore, had to be
ascertained in order to determine whether it had been a good or a bad death. A
person who committed suicide, for example, was believed to have acted under
the influence of an evil spirit. Those who died an "unnatural or violent"
death, including "men who are killed by an animal, or who are drowned, or in
any way meet their death by misadventure . . . men who die from gripe, in
contortions, or from any form of malignant or disfiguring disease, such as
smallpox, for example, or in fact anyone whose body at the time of death is
marked with sores, or which is in a state of putrefaction," would be denied a
proper burial.38
A proper burial ceremony opened the door to reincarnation; only the
completion of all rites, Igbos believed, would send the spirit of the deceased to
the spirit world. And only after having entered the spirit world could one
reincarnate. A proper burial actually involved two burials, a physical one, in
which the body was placed into the earth; and a spiritual one, a very public
ritual that celebrated the individual's life while simultaneously mourning the
loss. This second burial was just as important as the placing of the body in the
ground because without it the spirit could not join the other ancestors or
reincarnate. "After death there is a certain place in which souls foregather,"
Leonard reported, "and where they remain until the second funeral ceremony
to the dead has been performed, and while so detained they exist on a kind of
leaf called 'Okazi.'"39 It was the second burial which "accorded an ancestor
respectability" in the spirit world. It usually took place within a year after the
death, but it was sometimes delayed because the family of the deceased knew
that his or her spirit would only be accepted by the other ancestors if the
second burial was a lavish affair. It often took a long time to raise the needed
The souls of men denied a proper burial suffered a sad fate: they became
ghosts, not of the earth, because they no longer had physical bodies to house
them. But neither could they exist on the ancestral plane because improper
burial prevented entry into the spirit world, which was the portal to
reincarnation. According to Rev. John Obilor, those improperly buried spirits
"remain between what the Igbo call... the living and the dead as a sad
spirit."41 Thus Igbos differentiated between good spirits, the ancestors, and
these ghosts, or evil spirits. Like the ancestors, ghosts had the power to
influence the living, and Igbos believed that they often caused harm. Among
the Onitsha Igbo, they were "thought to be unable to go to the country of the
dead, but to wander about on the earth. ..." Such spirits were much feared,
because it was believed that they were "exceptionally anxious to kill their
friends and neighbours, as they want them to come and live with them."42

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138 The Journal of African American History

The spirits of exceptionally evil men, especially but not limited to

murderers, underwent another form of punishment specific to the Igbo.
Murderers had caused a violent or unnatural death, and since Igbos believed
that men who died in this manner could not receive a proper burial, the
murderer condemned his victim's spirit to wander as a ghost. Therefore, the
murderer was refused a proper burial, and like all others denied proper burial,
his or her body was thrown into the "Bad Bush." Aligwekwe considered this an
example of reciprocity, which he said Igbos considered a "natural law and
hence imperative." The ancients, he related, believed that "[h]uman life was
sacred . . . and should not be removed licentiously." Based upon the severity
of this sin, he wrote, the idea of a murderer escaping additional punishment
"was inconceivable in the ancient Igbo traditional justice." Therefore, the
ancients had erected a supernatural system of justice. African philosopher
Elechukwu Njaka observed that "justice and fair play seem to be [the first
ancestors'] most exemplary qualities." Certain men had acted so badly that
not only were they denied proper burial, but they also suffered a "penance
that was inflicted by prehistoric ancestors," who foresaw the existence of such
sinful men and called for the transmigration of their spirits into animals'
Among the Igbo only the souls of men particularly "obnoxious to the
community" would undergo such a penalty. This rule restored equilibrium to
the community.44 Evidence abounds of this belief among various Igbo groups.
Talbot observed that "should one succumb to temptation and become evil, his
ghost will... be driven forth by the spirits of his blameless kin to take up his
abode in the animal realm."45 He also noted that among the Abakaliki Igbo,
"some bad people are forced to become animals after their death in
punishment of sins and are never reincarnated as human beings." Historian
Victor Uchendu noted that "[transmigration ... is regarded as the greatest
possible punishment for the incestuous, the murderer, the witch, and the
sorcerer. . . . 'May you not reincarnate in the human form'?is a great curse
for the Igbo." "It is said," anthropologist C. K. Meek similarly observed, "that
a bad man may be reborn as an animal. ... In cursing another, therefore, an
Ibo may sometimes express the hope that the other will be reborn not as a
human being, but as a tree or a wild beast, or as an okpango or ape-like
Numerous other examples permeate the literature on the various Igbo
peoples. The Degama believed that "evildoers are driven forth to inhabit the
bodies of crocodiles, serpents and big apes." The Owerri believed that "the
souls of bad men pass into ape form at death." Among Igbo living near Igrita,
"the spirits of the righteous dead often take up their abode in leopard form
while awaiting a new term of earth life, but those who enter into crocodile,
ape, or bush cat, are regarded as forever accursed." Anthropologist Charles
Partridge observed that Igbos in the northeastern section of Igboland called
Obubura Hill concluded that "sometimes [the soul] goes into a wild beast and
gives people a great deal of trouble, or it may wander about in the bush in

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Igbo Cultural Beliefs in African American Folk Expressions 139

some mysterious undefined form doing nothing in particular except [to] scare
those who come across it." About the Igbo in general, Talbot further
observed, "The ghost of an evil man would in vain seek admittance within the
shelter of the family tree, but would be driven forth by the shades of his
blameless kin to await, in animal form, a new term of earth life." Similarly,
Njaka observed that the first ancestors "see that only the right people return
to earth as the spirits of ndiishii [ancestors]."47 Finally, a statement by Talbot
demonstrates that the belief in the transmigration of the spirit into animal
form as a punishment is almost completely particular to the Igbo: he observed
that "The Boki are one of the few tribes [among the Semi-Bantu, a neighbor
to the Igbos] which think that very evil men go into animals after their
The value that Igbos placed on various spiritual life forces explains why
transmigration represented such a severe punishment. Aligwekwe explained
that Igbos had a hierarchy, at the top of which was Chukwu, loosely
translated as Great God or Supreme Spirit. Several important deities followed
Chukwu, and the spirits of the ancestors followed those deities. Next came
mankind, followed by the animals. Because animals were a lower life force,
Igbos shared with the majority of the Delta peoples a belief that "animal life
was repellent and degrading," reported Leonard.49 Father Agbo elaborated:
"The life of the animal world, as being on a lower scale than our own, is
regarded with even more contempt, and ... an accordingly diminished value is
placed on it than is placed on human life."50 Agbo provided further indirect
support for this belief when he observed that a murderer "has deviated from
the rational order, lost his humanity by lapsing into the subjection of
beasts."51 Traditionally, Igbos believed that twins should be immediately
thrown into the evil forest?a section of the forest set aside to receive the
bodies of those who did not merit proper burial?as abominations, Isichei
noted, because "[s]ingle births were regarded as typically human, multiple
births as typical of the animal world. Twins were regarded as less than human,
therefore, and put to death (as were animals produced at single births)."52


The four tales at the center of this discussion retain these Igbo
conceptions of life and death, the afterlife, retributive justice, and
transmigration. Indeed, "Ole Man Rouse" leads one to believe that the
storytellers, Cricket and Tim, not only understood this aspect of the belief in
transmigration, but also applied it to the institution of slavery?allowing us to
witness one form of the blending of Igbo cultural beliefs with the reality of
American slavery. The slaveholder whose spirit transmigrated into the turtle

wuh a white man, and he live in slavery-time. He ain't had no heart when he sober, en
when he drunk God knows what he had. When he git mad at a nigger heh wey he punish
him. He punish him in slavery time, an' he punish him in freedom, an' here in Big Cypress

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140 The Journal of African American History

is wey he punish he niggers, wey he drown 'em, en one time he come here fishin'. He been
out on dat log an' de niggers push him off, an' he ain't clim' back; an' he sperrit live in Big

This tale implies strongly that Ole Man Rouse's transmigration into a
turtle served as his punishment for two abominations of the utmost
significance in Igboland: murder and the theft of a man's freedom. Igbo
tradition identified murder as one of the most serious violations of the
community's laws, and Igbo captives almost certainly would have considered
the enslavement of any human as another sin calling for retributive justice.
The description of Ole Man Rouse's spirit as an entity trapped forever within
the body of a turtle demonstrates that he was deserving of the harshest
punishments. Thus this story preserves specifically Igbo beliefs.
Simultaneously, however, it helps us to understand the process of syncretism
between Igbos and Africans generally: enslaved African workers and their
descendants could understand the sinfulness of Ole Man Rouse from this
description of a heartless master who killed black men and women during
slavery and after freedom. Though an African American descended from an
ethnic background other than Igbo might not have comprehended the deep
significance of transmigration into animal form, the story makes it clear that
this is a punishment meted out to the worst of sinners.
The reputation of the mulatto doctor in "The Yellow Crane" received a
similar coloration among enslaved Africans and their descendants. The doctor
was a murderer. Kike told the story, indicating that the doctor lived "[b]ack in
slavery time." As a young man, his father sent him "off to a furrin Ian'
[foreign land] for schoolin'." The son was quite smart, and at school picked up
a "heap er book and heap er larnin'." He returned, a doctor, to live by himself,
and because he knew that "[h]e had more sense 'an [than] white folks and
niggers both," he treated both with disdain. His sins took on a much larger
significance, however, because according to the tales that passed through the
neighborhood, he used to '"casion [occasion] niggers to die" at every
opportunity. He frequented Crane Lake, and while there he was often
observed to pause and "laugh at he own weeked [wicked] ways," according to
the "old folks," an important source of information in the black community.
Often the death of others made him feel "satisfied." The tale even appears to
hint at a feeling of double consciousness, explained so presciently by W. E. B.
Du Bois as a sense of "two warring ideals"?the tension of being both
American and African American. The storyteller observed that "he been full
of misery for he self and everybody, but a real nigger were pison [poison] to
him, and he were pison to the nigger. He hair were straight and he been goose
eye and he look like a crane and he wored a long black cloak." Eventually, the
doctor died on the lake, and ever since then, "dere is certain times when de
yaller crane is seen, and a nigger always die."54 To an Igbo, this doctor would
certainly not deserve proper burial, and his crimes clearly warranted a severe
punishment after death?transmigration of his spirit into an animal.

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Igbo Cultural Beliefs in African American Folk Expressions 141

The sins committed in each tale differed slightly. In "Transmigration,"

Smart Daniel's daddy did not reveal his sin to Tad, but he told Tad that "he
don't res' none." Instead, he "spen' he time flyin' aroun' in de night an' talkin'
most of de time wid other spirits, an' sometimes he makes heself known to
humans." This owl/spirit also provided two very important pieces of
information. He said that "he ain' live right in dis world," and that some of
the other evil spirits with whom he associates "takes on other shapes an' lives
in de form of different birds and animals, an' when dey is 'stroyed [destroyed]
dey changes dey shapes."55 We can conclude that Smart Daniel's daddy sinned
in a manner that an Igbo would consider an abomination. At the same time,
his story presents an Igbo continuity not seen in the other tales. Indeed, Tad's
comment that when transmigrated spirits' animal forms die, they "changes
dey shapes"?that is, they assume a new animal form?closely resembles
Talbot's observation regarding the Abakaliki Igbo, who believed that "some
bad people are forced to become animals after their death in punishment of
sins and are never reincarnated as human beings; when their beast forms
become old and die, their souls go into young animals." "The general rule,"
Talbot observed, "seems to be: 'once a beast soul, always a beast soul!' There
is but little chance of redemption in subsequent reincarnations, since the stain
of sojourn in animal form will cling about the backslider."56 Apparently the
ancestors who laid the foundations for Igbo society, having taken pains to
create such a punishment for the worst of sinners, foresaw the death of the
animal form and did not want the evil spirit to have a second chance to
plague society or get a proper burial. Therefore, they limited carefully that
spirit's reincarnation to the form of another animal, and this detail survived
the American slave experience. Enslaved African Americans especially had
reason to fear the reincarnation of their former masters; in a new land where
new rules applied, a master's right to his human property might survive the
death of his body.
The tales' description of the tainted souls' behavior likewise mirrors Igbo
beliefs about evil spirits. Agbo referred to "wandering restless ghosts," and
Talbot called them "restless wraiths." Anthropologist G. T. Basden reported
that such spirits "have no place of abode, are lost souls, wanderers, [who] pass
miserable, restless existences, without hope for their future comfort." Talbot
noted that among the Onitsha Igbo, evil spirits "are thought to be unable to
go to the country of the dead but to wander about on the earth," and referred
to offal-eating evil spirits "wanderfing] about."57 Isichei reported that those
who died bad deaths or did not receive a proper burial "wander[ed] homeless
and dispossessed, expressing their grief by causing harm among the living."
Other examples abound.58 The appearance of wandering, restless spirits who
"don't res' none," like that of ole man Smart Daniel's daddy, hardly seems
coincidental in tales with such strong connections to Igbo beliefs.
"The King Buzzard" offers a classic depiction of the transmigration of the
spirit as a punishment for evil behavior at the same time that it provides a
trenchant commentary on the institution of slavery. It tells of an African

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142 The Journal of African American History

chief who betrayed his own people and sold them into slavery. As a result,
when the chief died, "de Great Master decide dat he were lower dan all other
mens or beasts; he punishment were to wander for eternal time over de face er
de earth. Dat as he had kilt de sperrits of mens an' womens as well as dere
bodies, he must wander on an' on."59 The use of European forms?heaven and
hell?barely conceals the fact that Igbo values predominate. It should be
emphasized that the narrators all placed their tales "back in slavery time." In
all but "Transmigration," the transmigrated spirits had, during their human
lives, exploited, abused, and killed or otherwise led to the death of the
enslaved. That they received a punishment worse than hell, according to
"The King Buzzard," indicates the great price that Africans put upon
Freedom was essential to Africans of the Delta region, including the Igbos.
According to Leonard, kidnapping and enslaving an Igbo usually involved
removing him from his family and community; this meant more than the
denial of the material and personal pleasures associated with home. It meant a
severing of the bond between him and his "protecting spirit," generally
believed to be the ancestral spirit of his father or grandfather, "for the very
act of seizure implies that his guardian has been unable to protect
him. . . . Unless he can once more regain his freedom, he has lost everything
not only in this life, but in the life to come."60 The "protecting spirit" to
which Leonard referred resembles the Igbo spirit called Chi. Defining Chi in
Igboland would be at least as difficult as defining God for a Christian
philosopher; in each case, the spirit has a number of roles and a vast
significance. But one of ChVs important roles was to serve as a "guardian
spirit." 61 While enslaved Africans sought to retain their culture and ethnic
identity in a foreign land through various methods, including music, dance,
and burial ceremonies, Leonard's statement indicates that enslavement meant
a severance of this special connection to one's Chi, upon which Igbos relied
for guidance and strength. Igbos considered the loss to be profoundly

The day one's Chi agrees to get lost,

If one enters even in one's compound farmland,
One will get lost there.62

African captives had to endure the horrors of the Middle Passage and the
cruelty of American masters. Such experiences certainly might have left them
feeling completely unprotected, confirming the idea that their guardians had
been torn from them.
Thus the enormity of the African chiefs crime becomes clearer when
framed within Igbo values, especially this emphasis on freedom. It seems safe
to assume that a chief would have understood this important connection to
the ancestors, and so must have realized that removing the Africans from
their homeland, friends, and families would probably result in the improper

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Igbo Cultural Beliefs in African American Folk Expressions 143

burial of the enslaved person's body. Yet none of this prevented the chiefs
willing participation in the slave trade.
Igbos were aware of the existence of such men and had rules governing
their punishment. Men found to have sold "free-born" men would first have
their house or houses broken down, then would be required to bring back the
person they had sold. "[I]f he failed to do so, he would then be looked upon
by the others as 'an abominable one,' and thereby forfeit the right of second
funeral and some other rights during his lifetime."63 "The King Buzzard"
encapsulates the Igbo understanding of the actions of the African chief and
the punishment that awaited his spirit. This tale's genesis was guided by an
Igbo religious philosophy.64


A victim murdered by his or her master not only suffered under a harsh
labor system while alive, but was denied a proper burial at death. While
enslaved persons in the United States could not in most cases carry out proper
burials as prescribed by their cultural traditions, historical records show that
they did their best, and this gives us another opportunity to look at the
process of syncretism between African ethnic beliefs and a more general
African American culture. Certainly, enslaved Igbos found it difficult to
continue some traditions: the lavishness of the Igbo second burial, for
example, must have been lost immediately, though the memory likely
remained for many who would have found themselves needled by guilt and
fear of angry spirits every time they buried a loved one in as traditional a
manner as they could. But like the Igbos, many African groups placed a heavy
emphasis on the importance of proper burial as a way of guaranteeing loved
ones' entrance into the next world. The burial practices of most African
ethnic groups are especially significant because of their singularity. Unlike so
many other beliefs and practices, which found a mirror in Christian faith and
could easily find expression through some of the outward trappings of
Christianity, most of the African-influenced burial practices observed in
America had no European parallel. Their continued presence therefore attests
powerfully to the continued importance of the ancestors and their proper
treatment in the lives of Africans in America. While many of the proper
practices were necessarily lost, many remained.
Though the extravagance of Igbo second burials would have been
unattainable for most enslaved workers, the process itself was not completely
lost. If we recall that the first burial was physical, the second spiritual, then
we should consider this statement from Rosa, a former slave living in Harris
Neck on the Georgia Sea Islands:

Folks alluz hab two fewnuls. We hab one wen dey die, an den once a yeah [year], we hab a
suhvice fuh ebrybody wut died durin duh yeah. Duh preachuh say a prayuh fuhrum [for
them] all.

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144 The Journal of African American History

Aunty Jane, another former slave who was living in Darien, Georgia, on
the islands, observed,

We ain preach duh suhmon wen we bury urn, but we waits a wile so's all duh relations kin
come. .. . We alluz hab two fewnul fuh duh pusson. We hab duh regluh fewnul wen yuh
die. Den once a yeah, we hab one big preachin fuh ebrybody wut die dat yeah.65

Historian John Blassingame also noted that services were frequently held
several weeks after burial, though he attributed the practice to demanding
labor requirements.66 A provision in the Georgia Sea Islands which required
"special burial rites for persons who die by drowning, lightning, smallpox, and
suicide" would also have resonated clearly with Igbo beliefs that people who
died in these circumstances would have been thrown into the evil forest rather
than buried properly because they died an unnatural death.67
The practices outlined above probably came as close as possible to
allowing Igbos in America to feel that they had fulfilled their responsibilities
to their loved ones who had passed away, and who might now be reborn in
Africa or even Igboland. But the Igbo were not the only ethnic group who
would have found these traditions somewhat reassuring. The Yoruba, Nigerian
neighbors of the Igbo, likewise held their own version of the second burial.
Indeed, the annual second burial detailed above by Rosa and Aunty Jane also
closely resembled the Yoruban tradition. Anthropologist Stephen Farrow
described the Yoruba "All Souls" festival as an annual event, occurring every
June, at which "mourning is repeated for all those who have died during the
last few years." The Ibibio, another Nigerian neighbor of the Igbo, also held a
second burial, "without which the deceased is thought to be unable to take his
proper position in the realm of the dead."68 Holding some form of second
burial, then, would have helped to imite several ethnic groups into a pan
African community in the United States.
Once in North America, Igbos had to fit their ancestral beliefs into the
version of Christian religion that emerged among the Africans from various
ethnic backgrounds. Many beliefs survived, either because they were roughly
parallel to Christian beliefs, or because they resembled other Africans'
practices closely enough that the various ethnic groups could meld them into
a shared black religion in various parts of the United States. Blassingame has
argued that "the slaves made European forms serve African functions."
Religious scholar Bolaji Idowu indicated that Christianity was a religion
confined to the walls of the church: "[t]hus it is possible for an African to
sing lustily in Church, 'Other refuge have I none,' while still carrying an
amulet somewhere on his person, or being able to go out of Church straight to
his diviner, without feeling that he is betraying any principle."69
Like all Africans forcibly transported to America, Igbos could easily have
shaped their views of the Christian Heaven to accord with their understanding
of reincarnation in the spirit world. In this process, then, we see the second
level of syncretism occurring, that between Europeans and Africans in the

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Igbo Cultural Beliefs in African American Folk Expressions 145

United States. Both Euro-Americans and West Africans generally agreed that
in the afterlife they would rejoin lost family and friends, and that they would
live a life free of suffering. For enslaved Africans and African Americans, this
meant seeing mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children left behind in
Africa or sold away from the family unit, and it meant freedom from slavery.
What many whites did not realize was that it often meant rebirth in Africa.
Though many of the specifics were lost, the broad themes did not change. In
the slave narrative written by Charles Ball, he observed that African
Americans "are universally of the opinion, and this opinion is founded in
their religion, that after death they shall return to their own country and
rejoin their former companions and friends, in some happy region."70 The
Bible itself had an example of rebirth in the story of Lazarus. Christian views
of heaven and Igbo views of the spirit world were similar enough that African
beliefs could be encoded in Christian language, allowing Igbo slaves to retain
many crucial aspects of their religion.
Furthermore, Igbos could easily understand and accept the Christian
notion that only the worthy can get into heaven. They believed that only
those who lived a good life and died a good death would receive proper burial,
the key to the entrance of the spirit world. Perhaps the black preacher who
said the following came from an Igbo background:

Those who have been born of the spirit will be welcomed back into the house of God but
those who have not been killed dead and made alive again in Jesus Christ, who have not
been dug up, rooted and grounded and buried in the Lord, they will have their portion in
outer darkness. This must be so, for not one iota of sin can enter that haven of rest.71

Certainly this sermon would have resonated with an Igbo-Christian?or

Igbo-Muslim?member of the audience.72 It might provide an example of
both forms of syncretism: the beliefs of Igbos could have mixed with the
beliefs of other African groups, and then on a secondary level blended with
Christianity. Other comments from formerly enslaved African Americans
also hint at a similar twice-blended process. The former slave who said "this
here voodoo and hoodoo and spirits ain't nothin' but somebody died outen
Christ and his spirit ain't at rest, just in a wondering [sic] condition in the
world" could have been influenced by an Igbo ancestor.73 Fredrika Bremer,
Swedish traveler, poet, and author, interviewing an older slave named Romeo,
may also have been introduced to Igbo-inspired beliefs when informed that
"what the people in his native land believed respecting life after death [was
that the] good would go to the God of heaven who made them." The bad, on
the other hand, would "go into the wind." Bremer noted that Romeo blew
with his mouth all around him after saying this, an action that he may have
intended to indicate the restlessness of a disembodied spirit.74

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146 The Journal of African American History


The worldview encapsulated in these four tales was bequeathed from Igbos
to African Americans. Adams collected these stories from black workers on
his farm in the late 1920s, but the undeniable 'similarities between these tales
and Igbo beliefs, recorded by both Nigerian insiders and European outsiders,
demonstrate that the ideology from which these narratives were spun survived
from the days when Africans first found themselves forced into slavery in a
new and foreign land. Enslaved Igbos judged those around them according to
the belief system instilled in them from birth in Africa. In their stories the
spirits of the worst offenders against the natural order received the severest
punishment, transmigration. The highly unusual descriptions of animals with
the characteristics of men indicate that Igbos in America who created and
preserved these tales had remarkable command of their ancestors' beliefs.
When these Africans and African Americans told their children tales in which
the spirits of slaveholders and other offenders of the natural order entered the
bodies of animals after death, they taught them the Igbo concept of soul and
spirit. They showed them that living a good life and dying a good death
ensured a good afterlife, and that violations of rules established by ancient
powers would be punished.
At the same time, Igbos shared with other Africans several fundamental
religious beliefs, including a common understanding of the life cycle. That,
combined with the similarities of their experience as enslaved laborers, made
these tales, though uniquely shaped by Igbo storytellers, accessible to most
members of the community. Although the continuation of an ethnic identity
was probably not an explicit goal for Africans enslaved in North America, the
tales told by freedpeople reverberated with the rich culture of their ancestors
long after emancipation. The survival of these tales indicates that they
created a sense of comfort, safety, and retributive justice essential for their
psychological and spiritual well-being. Those practices that met the
psychological needs of Africans and their descendants in America?proper
burials, the maintenance of a connection with the ancestors, an understanding
of reincarnation and the life cycle, the belief in retributive justice?persisted.
Though enslaved Africans may not have intended it, and many of their
descendants may not have been aware of it, when they created a sense of Pan
African identity, they incorporated into the African American belief system
numerous practices that bore the stamp of one or more ethnic groups from
their African Motherland.

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Igbo Cultural Beliefs in African American Folk Expressions 147

1A common Igbo saying, see John Anenechukwu Umeh, After God is Dibia: Igbo Cosmology, Divination and
Sacred Science in Nigeria, Vol. I (London, 1997), 2.
2W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903; reprinted New York, 1989), 138.
I use 'Igbo' rather than 'Ibo' because, according to African philosopher P E. Aligwekwe, "Ibo" was
introduced only because "[i]t seems that the English found the word Igbo too difficult to pronounce since the
sound /gb/ does not exist in the English language" {The Continuity of Traditional Values in the African Society:
The Igbo of Nigeria [Abuja, 1991], 336). Further, Elizabeth Isichei, writing in 1976, observed, "[t]he
overwhelming majority of the Igbo now prefer the form 'Igbo', which they regard as indigenous, in
contradistinction to the inaccurate 'Ibo' of colonial days"; A History of the Igbo People (London, 1976), xv.
4Melville J. Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past (1941; reprinted Boston, MA, 1958).
Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro
Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime (1918; reprinted Baton Rouge, LA, 1966). Indeed, Phillips's
observations tell us more about the ways that some masters attempted to use their limited and often incorrect
understanding of African ethnic groups to their own advantage than about the identity of the enslaved.
6Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past, 1-2. A significant article soon appeared supporting Herskovits's
conclusions. In a 1942 essay studying John Canoe festivals?public celebrations usually occurring around
Christmas in which black performers had a large public role?Ira De A. Reid observed that "Negro slaves
brought from Africa many of their tribal rituals and ceremonies." "The home of the great majority of the
slaves brought to the Americas was the West Coast of Africa," he added, "and the cargoes that arrived in the
New World represented various tribal groups. But these groups often contained members from the same tribe
who were able to continue some of the group practices of their homeland." Ira De A. Reid, "The John Canoe
Festival: A New World Africanism," Phylon 3 (Fourth Quarter, 1942): 360, 361.
'Roger Bastide, African Civilisations in the New World (London, 1971), 8. Historians were not alone in
denying ethnic influences in the United States; anthropologist Sidney Mintz wrote in 1970, "the slaves were
not usually able to regroup themselves in the New World settings in terms of their origins; the cultural
heterogeneity of any slave group normally meant that what was shared culturally was likely to be minimal."
Sidney Mintz, "Foreword," in Afro-American Anthropology: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Norman Whitten
o John Szwed (New York, 1970), 8.
See, for example, Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Master
1974), and Many Thousands Gone: The First Two C
Alan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: The Developme
(Chapel Hill, NC, 1986), especially pages 317-18; M
White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (Pri
Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith (Princeton, N
Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton, NJ,
Faith: Christianizing the American People took a m
"Spiritual Holocaust"; one can conclude that since
Middle Passage, he did not find ethnicity to be of gr
^Peter Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial
(1974; reprinted New York, 1996); Daniel Littlefie
Colonial South Carolina (Urbana, IL, 1991). Wood sug
valued in South Carolina for their ability to herd cattle
colony shifted to rice production, the preference fo
was observed that they were quite knowledgeable ab
the importance of ethnic origins to an enslaved Afr
historians of slavery in colonial America to task for
been such a great recognition of African ethnic di
pertinently, why have North Americans only so rece
mainland, a parallel concern? Part of the answer
American history, which prevented the question f
from being accorded much significance" (Littlefield
Douglas Chambers, Murder at Montpelier: Igbo Afr
^Kenneth Stampp's The Peculiar Institution: Slaver
the possibility of some African carryovers, but nev
above, he emphasized the erasure of any differ

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148 The Journal of African American History

Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York, 1972) seldom mentioned any African
ethnic group and specifically dismissed Herskovits's claim that slaves' apparent preference for immersed
baptisms had an ethnic component, see 200, 183-284, and 232. John Blassingame's The Slave Community:
Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York, 1972) argued that ethnic origins were important
determinants of which persons were enslaved. In a vein similar to that which would later be explored by Peter
Wood and Daniel Littlefield (see endnote 9 above), Blassingame also mentioned the correlation between
ethnic origins and agricultural skills; he concluded that the significance of ethnic origin was "the extent to
which native culture and economic organization prepared the African for one facet of plantation life:
systematic labor." After this initial reference, Blassingame focused on generally African or West African
qualities of life (3). Lawrence Levine's Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought
from Slavery to Freedom (New York, 1977) mentioned ethnicity when his African anthropological or
ethnographical sources did. However, he ultimately concluded that black culture was "a hybrid with a strong
African base," and that the "question or origins" was complex and, ultimately, irrelevant "for an understanding
of consciousness," 24.
12Robert Starobin, Denmark Vesey: The Slave Conspiracy of 1822 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1970). Charles
Joyner's Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (Urbana, IL, 1984) should also be noted.
Joyner wrote that "Afro-American slaves maintained African ethnic distinctions on All Saints rice plantations
well into the mid-19th century," but then allowed the issue to recede without evaluating the significance of his
statement (143).
13Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (New York,
1987), 3 & 12. David Eltis and David Richardson would later join Stuckey in arguing that ethnic identity was
important to the forging of African and African American communities in America, observing that "forced
migration from West Africa to the Americas was no more random and chaotic than was its free European
counterpart." David Eltis and David Richardson, "The 'Numbers Game' and Routes to Slavery," in Routes to
Slavery: Direction, Ethnicity, and Mortality in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, ed. Eltis and Richardson,
(Portland, OR, 1997), 13.
Attempting to identify African ethnicities in the Diaspora remains a contentious subject. In 1997, Philip
Morgan declared that "because many African slaves came in tortuous and convoluted ways from the interior
to the coast, whatever ethnic identity they originally had was undoubtedly in flux." Moreover, he observed
that "overall, Africans in the Americas had to adapt to survive. They had no time for debates about cultural
purity or precise roots; they had no necessary continuing commitment to the societies from which they came.
They were denied much of their previous social and cultural heritages. . . . Even what they brought they
ruthlessly jettisoned because it was no longer applicable or relevant to their new situations." Morgan said that
he accepted Sidney Mintz's description of the history of slaves in the United States as merely a composition of
"mangled pasts." Philip Morgan, "The Cultural Implications of the Atlantic Slave Trade: African Regional
Origins, American Destinations and New World Developments," in Eltis and Richardson, Routes to Slavery,
134, 141^2.
14Many Africanist scholars object that ethnic identities are remnants of the slave trade, labels applied by
outsiders to facilitate colonial administration. They worry that certain groups were identified haphazardly.
Clearly scholars need to be aware of these issues; yet as Africanist Michael Gomez recently pointed out,
"genres such as West African Arabic literature reveal... that ethnicities clearly existed prior to colonialism
or any other contact with Europeans." He provided several examples, concluding that "ethnicity is crucial to
an understanding of African American ethnogenesis." Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks:
The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill, NC, 1998), 7-8.
^See, for example, Rev. Fr. Agbo's list of powerful spirits and their shrines divided by region. Rev. Fr.
Donatus Joseph Uroko Agbo, Igbo Traditional Religion: The Spirituality and the Eschatological Character of
Igbo Traditional Charity, II (Nsukka, Nigeria, 1993), 25-26.
^A. E. Afigbo, "Prologomena to the Study of the Culture History of the Igbo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria," in
West African Culture Dynamics: Archaeological and Historical Perspectives, ed. B. K. Swartz, Jr. and
Raymond E. Dumett (The Hague, Netherlands, 1980), 311, 321; E. N. Obiechina, "Introduction," in Igbo
Traditional Life, Culture, and Literature, ed. M. J. C. Echeruo and E. N. Obiechina (Owerri, Nigeria, 1971);
Isichei, A History, 20, 44; Dr. W. B. Baikie, quoted in Adiele Afigbo, Ropes of Sand: Studies in Igbo History
and Culture (Ibadan, Nigeria, 1981), 39. Even Rev. Nnamdi A. Odoemene, who claimed that the acephalous
nature of Igbo villages meant that "pre-European Igbos . . . had no concept of Tgboness' or Igbo
consciousness," found that they were united as a group by their worldview, which "shape[d] their culture and
determine[d] their identity." Ultimately, he concluded, "the most essential fact that unites the various
independent Igbo villages is nothing but their common religious ideas and beliefs." See Rev. Nnamdi
Anacletus Odoemene,- The Dynamics of Cultural Revitalisation: A Case Study of the Igbos of Nigeria (Enugu,

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Igbo Cultural Beliefs in African American Folk Expressions 149

Nigeria, 1993), 101, 106-07. See also C. K. Meek, Law and Authority in a Nigerian Tribe: A Study in Indirect
Rule (1937; reprinted London, 1950), xvii.
17Agbo, Igbo Traditional Religion, 6.
18See Margaret Washington Creel, 'A Peculiar People": Slave Religion and Community-Culture among the
Gullahs (New York, 1988), especially the end of chapter five and chapter six. See also Gomez, Exchanging
Our Country Marks, 256-57. While Gomez points to a small number of black converts in earlier periods, he
agrees that slave masters were generally against or indifferent to the conversion of slaves until the 1830s.
19Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks, 114?15; Douglas B. Chambers, "'My Own Nation': Igbo Exiles in
the Diaspora," in Eltis and Richardson, Routes to Slavery, 73, 74-75, 77, 84.
20Robert G. O'Meally, "Introduction: Masks of Edward C. L. Adams," in E. C. L. Adams, Tales of the
Congaree (Chapel Hill, NC, 1987), xii-xviii.
21 For an examination of the core values among the African Americans from the period of slavery to the 20th
century, see V. P. Franklin, Black Self-Determination: A Cultural History of African American Resistance
(Brooklyn, NY, 1992).
22 Adams, "The King Buzzard" in Tales of the Congaree, 120-21.
23Adams, "Ihe Yellow Crane" in ibid., 53-55.
Adams, "Transmigration" in ibid., 60-61.
25Adams, "Ole Man Rouse" in ibid., 74-75.
26Elechukwu Njaka, Igbo Political Culture (Evanston, IL, 1974), 38.
2'At reincarnation, the spirit to be reborn appeared before Chukwu to receive his Chi, that guiding spirit,
sometimes seen as one's destiny, and his Eke, or reincarnating ancestor, which was reflected in one's
personality. E. I. Metuh, quoted in John Obilor, The Doctrine of the Resurrection of the Dead and the Igbo
Belief in the Reincarnation': A Systemico-theological Study (New York, 1994), 121 and 122. This
reincarnating ancestor would be recognizable to the family or a well-trained dibia, very loosely translated as
diviner, and Aligwekwe noted that one of the first duties of new parents was to "go to a diviner to know which
among the dead of the family had come back to them in the newborn baby. At times the baby was even given
the same name as the 'reincarnated' ancestor," Aligwekwe, Continuity, 191. G. T. Basden concurred: "The Ibo
believes that all children are reincarnations of beings who have already passed through a lifetime in this
world; hence a man will point to a little girl and gravely inform you that she is his mother reborn into the
world. The child will consequently be given the name of the relative it is supposed to resemble, and as such
will receive a joyful welcome back to earth"; see Among the Ibos of the Niger: An Account of the Curious &
Interesting Habits, Customs, & Beliefs of a Little Known African People by One Who Has for Many Years Lived
amongst Them on Close & Intimate Terms (London, 1921), 60. See also Chukwuemeka G. Olisa, Ossomari: A
Kingdom of the Lower Niger Valley (1640-1986): A Comparative Study of the Tradition of Origin, Migration,
and Settlement of a Niger Ibo Kingdom (Onitsha, Nigeria, 1990), 5; Marcellina U. Okehie-Offoha, "The
Igbo," in Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Nigeria, ed. Marcellina U. Okehie-Offoha and Matthew N. O.
Sadiku, (Trenton, NJ, 1996), 73; and Elizabeth Isichei, ed., Igbo Worlds: An Anthology of Oral Histories and
Historical Descriptions (Philadelphia, PA, 1978), 178. There was a waiting period involved in reincarnation,
as a new baby was not always immediately available. This helps to explain the tendency among the living to
make offerings to the ancestors throughout their lifetime.
28Adams, "Transmigration" in Tales of the Congaree, 60.
^P. Amaury Talbot, Tribes of the Niger Delta: Their Religions and Customs (1932; reprinted New York,
1967), 269; Newbell Niles Puckett, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (1926; reprinted New York, 1969),
172; Suzanne Preston Blier, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power (Chicago, 1995), 310.

-3 1u Adams, "Transmigration" in Tales of the Congaree

DlGeorge W. Ellis, quoted in Georgia Writers' Project, Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the
Georgia Coastal Negroes (1940; reprinted Westport, CT, 1973), 228; Capt. Roy Clive Abraham, The Tiv
People 2nd ed. (Hertford, England, 1940), 43, 45. Robert Hammill Nassau also noted an association between
the hoot of an owl and impending death, and he observed that a common travel omen warned, "see that your
camp at night is not disturbed by the cry of the Kulu (spirit of the departed), that warns you that one of you is
going to die"; Fetishism in West Africa: Forty Years' Observations of Native Customs and Superstitions (1904;
reprinted New York, 1967), 195-96.
**2Adams, "The Yellow Crane" in Tales of the Congaree, 53.
33Adams, "Ole Man Rouse" in ibid., 74.
Adams, "The King Buzzard" in ibid., 120.

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150 The Journal of African American History

35Ibid., 121.
36Puckett, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro, 172; P. Amaury Talbot, The Peoples of Southern Nigeria: A
Sketch of Their History, Ethnology and Languages, with an Abstract of the 1921 Census (London, 1926), 306,
319; Adams, "The King Buzzard" in Tales of the Congaree, 121.
D 'Aligwekwe, Continuity, 193, 192. If either the body or spirit of the individual was impure, whether through
evil acts, disease, or an unnatural death, the body would not be properly buried. Likewise, Major Arthur Glyn
Leonard's Igbo informant noted that it was only after burial rites had been performed that the soul could go to
the spirit world, see The Lower Niger and Its Tribes, (New York, 1906), 141.
38Leonard, The Lower Niger, 142.
39Ibid., 141.
40 Although admittedly an example of a very rich man's burial, G. T. Basden observed a second burial in
which 21 cows, 11 pigs, and 10 goats were sacrificed. His book was published in 1921, and at that time he
estimated the cost of the funeral to have been ?150-?200; Among the Ibo, 121.
Obilor, Doctrine of the Resurrection, 128. Umeh adds that improperly buried spirits "are said to be at Ijite
naabo (the traditional territory between the human and the Spirit worlds; Ezi/Ezi Mmuo/Spirit street/way)";
After God is Dibia, 33; see also G. T. Basden, Among the Ibos, 119, 121.
42Talbot, The Peoples of Southern Nigeria, 2:316.
43 Aligwekwe, Continuity, 202; Njaka, Igbo Political Culture, 34; Leonard, The Lower Niger, 220. It should be
noted that transmigration into animal form is not reserved only for murderers.
44Leonard, The Lower Niger, 193.
45Talbot, Tribes of the Niger Delta, 148-149. Talbot added that "According to Mr. Martin Yellow, among Ibo
in the eastern part of the district, a sharp line of division is drawn between the ghosts which await rebirth
within the shelter of the family tree?usually some giant specimen of Ojji or Okpa-Kala?and those restless
wraiths who go forth at death to inhabit the body of crocodile, serpent, bush-cat or other evil shape"; 264.
46Talbot, The Peoples of Southern Nigeria, 2:238; Victor Uchendu, The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria (New York,
1965), 102; Meek, Law and Authority, 54-55.
47Talbot, The Peoples of Southern Nigeria, 2:318; P. Amaury Talbot, Some Nigerian Fertility Cults (1927;
reprinted London, 1967), 25, 77 and 171; Charles Partridge, Cross River Natives: Being Some Notes on the
Primitive Pagans of Obubura Hill District, Southern Nigeria, Including a Description of the Circles of Upright
Sculptured Stones on the Left Bank oftheAweyong River (1905; reprinted Germany, 1973), 281; Njaka, Igbo
Political Culture, 34-35.
4?Italics added; Talbot, The Peoples of Southern Nigeria, 2:241. Njaka also added that low economic status
may result in reincarnation as a tree or an animal; Igbo Political Culture, 34-35. Without referring
specifically to the transmigration of a spirit into animal form, Rev. Fr. Agbo noted that a murderer "has
deviated from the rational order, lost his humanity by lapsing into the subjection of beasts and therefore, must
be done away with"; Igbo Traditional Religion, 59.
While the evidence presented by Talbot indicates that the belief in the transmigration of the spirits of
evil men into animal form is strongest among the Igbo, he also notes that similar beliefs can be found among
the Ijaw, a group which borders the Igbo to the South, and among the Ekiti of the Yoruba, located to the west
of the Igbo. It is possible that contact resulting from the slave trade disseminated the views of the Igbo.
Further research is necessary to ascertain the strength of such beliefs among these people.
It should also be noted that one anthropologist working among the Igbos rejected the belief in
transmigration into animal form. Basden wrote, "There is no belief in transmigration into any but human
bodies, but we find a strongly grounded belief in the perpetuation of individuals by the medium of repeated
births"; Among the Ibos, 119.
49Leonard, The Lower Niger, 220.
50Ibid., 199.
Agbo, Igbo Traditional Religion, 59.
^2Isichei, A History, 26. Uchendu agreed: "It was believed that human beings should propagate their species
by single births. For a woman to bear more than one child at a time was regarded as degrading humanity to
the level of beasts. 'Plural offspring is nature's law for goats, cats, and dogs, not for men,' the people say"; The
Igbo of Southeast Nigeria, 58. See also Basden, who wrote, "for a woman to bear more than one child at a
birth is to degrade humanity to the level of the brute creation. Plural offspring is nature's law for goats and
dogs; for a woman to imitate them in this respect fills the Ibo with unspeakable disgust"; Among the Ibos, 57.
This view quickly disappeared in the United States. Many other African ethnic groups looked upon twins as a

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Igbo Cultural Beliefs in African American Folk Expressions 151

blessing rather than an unnatural curse, and slaveowners, seeing only an increase in their profit, considered
multiple births a boon.
53 Adams, "Ole Man Rouse," Tales of the Congaree, 74-75.
54Adams, "The Yellow Crane," ibid., 54-55.
55Adams, "Transmigration," ibid., 60.
56Talbot, The Peoples of Southern Nigeria, 2:238; Talbot, Tribes of the Niger Delta, 148^9. See also 264.
57Agbo, Igbo Traditional Religion, 14; Talbot, Tribes of the Niger Delta, 148; Basden, Among the Ibo, 119;
Peoples of Southern Nigeria, 2:316, 2:306.
JOIsichei, A History, 26; Partridge observed that improperly buried sp
Partridge, Cross River Natives, 281. Leonard's informant offered further
receive a proper burial "are obliged to wander about and are never a
wrote that "The Igbo believe that the wicked have no permanent resti
59 Adams, "King Buzzard," Tales of the Congaree, 121.
60Leonard, The Lower Niger, 190.
61 Jude C. U. Aguwa, The Agwu Deity in Igbo Religion: A Study of the Patron Spirit of Divination and
Medicine in an African Society (Enugu, Nigeria, 1995), 37. Umeh elucidated the idea of chi as a "spiritual
double," noting that numerology plays a powerful role in Igbo societies, and that the number two is connected
to Okala, a process which "creat[es] dualities or polarities in nature"; Umeh, After God Is Dibia, 31. Thus the
person in the world of the living had a twin, of sorts, in the spirit world: "In a general way we may visualise a
person's Chi as his other identity in spiritland?his spirit being complementing his terrestrial human being; for
nothing can stand alone, there must always be another thing standing beside it"; Chinua Achebe, "Chi in Igbo
Cosmology," quoted in John Umeh, After God Is Dibia, 31. The individual relied upon his or her Chi "to direct
all his actions and thoughts"; Aligwekwe, Continuity, 182-83. Other bipolarities considered significant to Igbos
include man/woman, death/life, fire/water, day/night, black/white, small/big, and laughter/tears (Umeh, After
God Is Dibia, 33). The duality also appears in this quotation from Igbo native Victor Uchendu: "neither the
world of man alone nor the world of the spirits is a permanent home. The two worlds together constitute a
home"; The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria, 15.
62Umeh, After God Is Dibia, 47.
63777e Separate Volume of English Portion of The History ofObosi and oflbo-Land in Brief, partially translated
by Frank O. Thomas (Onitsha, Nigeria, 1985), 31-32.
One tale not discussed in this paper provides evidence of the presence of the spirits of murdered slaves as
ghosts, trapped between earth and the ancestral world. In "The Little Old Man on the Gray Mule," the spirits
of the enslaved continue to run from the pack of dogs and the slavedriver who chased them even in death.
Adams, "The Little Old Man on the Gray Mule" in Tales of the Congaree, 30.
65Georgia Writers' Project, Drums and Shadows, 131, 147.
en The Slave Community, 33.
? Quoted in William R. Bascom, "Acculturation Among the Gu
(January-March, 1941), 49.
? Stephen Farrow, Faith, Fancies and Fetich, quoted in Geor
27; P. A. Talbot, Life in Southern Nigeria, quoted in Georgia W
69Blassingame, The Slave Community, 17; quoted in Ajibade Adefila Johnson, "Slave Religion in the Ante
Bellum South: A Study of the Role of Africanisms in the Black Response to Christianity," Ph.D. diss., Brandeis
. University, 1975, 76.
'?Charles Ball with Isaac Fisher, Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of
Charles Ball, A Black Man in / Was Born A Slave, Vol. I, ed. Yuval Taylor (Chicago, 1999), 219.
' 1mA Man in a Man," in Clifton H. Johnson, ed., God Struck Me Dead: Voices of Ex-Slaves (Philadelphia, PA,
1969), 14.
Since a belief in resurrection is a critical aspect of Islam, Muslims in the United States might also have
found themselves particularly drawn to this version of the afterlife and to the tales analyzed in this essay.
Enslaved persons of the Muslim faith have, historically, not received the attention that they should; however,
there are several useful studies available. Interested readers should consult Jane Idleman Smith and Yvonne
Yazbeck Haddad, The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection (Albany, NY, 1981) to learn more
about Islamic beliefs regarding resurrection. For more general information about African Muslims in the
United States, see Allan D. Austin, African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual

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152 The Journal of African American History

Struggles (New York, 1997); and Sylviane Diouf, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the
Americas (New York, 1998).
73Quoted in David Charles Dennard, "Religion in the Quarters: A Study of Slave Preachers in the Antebellum
South, 1800-1860," Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1983, 68.
Frederika Bremer, quoted in Michael Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks, 213.

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