Karla F. C. Holloway. Passed On: African American Mourning Stories, a Memorial. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002. xiv + 232 pp. 95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-2860-5.
Reviewed by John D. Saillant (Departments of English and History, Western Michigan University)
Published on H-South (September, 2002)
Mourning in African American Life
Mourning in African American Life
Passed On examines the life of death in African American culture and society. Karla F. C. Holloway argues that the vulnerability of African Americans to early death, particularly after the end of Reconstruction, has imbued African American life with the beliefs and practices of mourning and commemoration, including expressive funerals and a sense of the presence of haunts and spirits. "Black death is a cultural haunting," she writes (p. 3). "Your whole life is a funeral," she records Joe Louis as having said (p. 205). At the same time, she notes, African Americans have often thought of death as liberation. Mourning practices have been both humanizing and sacralizing in circumstances that have dehumanized and desecrated African American life. The book is a memorial for her son, Bem Kayin Holloway, who died in his early twenties while attempting with two companions to flee from prison. His funeral sermon, "The Promise of Hope in a Season of Despair," by Maurice O. Williams, author, minister, and teacher, appears as the last chapter of Passed On.
Holloway studied mourning rituals, visited graveyards, and interviewed morticians and directors of funeral homes throughout the United States as well as absorbing evidence from Richard Wright's death in Paris in 1960 and black cult members' deaths in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. The South, where she lives and where her son died, looms large in her argument. Violent deaths--therefore early ones--came for victims of Jim Crow. Lynching and the execution of convicts between 1882 and 1930 meant that one African American was put to death on an average of every four days in the South. The migration of African American southerners to northern cities caused an increased mortality among the children of the migrants, who were placed in new disease environments as well as in crowded urban conditions, but it also meant that many journeyed in a reverse migration to the South to participate in the funeral of a loved one. Some African Americans, like Booker T. Washington in New York in his last illness, possibly in search of treatment, determined to pass on and be buried in the South. He died in Alabama the morning after completing the long train ride from New York.
Resistance to the Civil Rights movement brought its own violent deaths, including those of young people, even children. Southern African Americans have long been on the funerary cutting edge: African American men learned embalming procedures by working on bodies of Civil War soldiers, an early school for African American morticians opened in 1920s Nashville, the drive-through funeral parlor debuted in 1960s Atlanta, a legal challenge to funeral homes that were not providing equal services to blacks and whites prevailed in 1970s Louisiana, and a black-owned company markets embalming fluids particularly for use in children's bodies in contemporary Arkansas.
James Baldwin appears, in his commentary on the serial killing of young men in Atlanta a quarter-century ago, to articulate the premise of many works in African American letters, including Passed On: this is a survivor's tale. John Marrant, Olaudah Equiano, Richard Allen, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Malcolm X all crafted narratives from this premise. It informs Phillis Wheatley's poetry. It also operates in landmark modern works like Sterling Brown's "Odyssey of Big Boy," Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Jacob Lawrence's migration paintings, Robert Hayden's "Middle Passage," Archie Shepp's Fire Music, Michael Harper's "Dear John, Dear Coltrane," Albert Murray's The Hero and the Blues, and Toni Morrison's Sula.
Holloway's book is a survivor's tale, itself built on remembrances of survivors as various as Mamie Till Bradley (Emmett Till's mother) and Flukey the Gambler, who interred his son, gunned down in 1983 in his young manhood, in a Cadillac-shaped coffin, complete with a steering wheel and whitewall tires. Flukey himself was later buried in a glass-topped casket with a telephone in his hands to symbolize his business. "Seven thousand people came to see his body," Holloway reports, "some wearing T-shirts sporting the slogan 'Flukey the Gambler Lives Forever'" (p. 185). A mordant humor, often one of the survivor's tools, surfaces occasionally in the book. Holloway records the common preference for black cosmeticians for funerals, since white ones tend to make the deceased "look dead." Probably no other academic book discusses the "dead Jheri-Kurl" (pp. 30-31).
Passed On is a Mules and Men for the early twenty-first century. Higher praise is hard to express. Zora Neale Hurston at once set a high standard for authors dealing with African American folklore and offered for her times--as Holloway does for our times--a metaphor for the folklorist. Born in 1891 in Florida, Hurston studied at Howard University and Barnard College in the 1920s. She traveled from New York to the South several times in the late 1920s to collect folklore, publishing Mules and Men in 1935. Apparently unsentimental to the core, Hurston recorded the life-giving and the death-dealing practices of African American Floridians and Louisianans. Some of these, like folk cures for gonorrhea and syphilis, Hurston knew, entailed death when life was desired. Much like Kabnis, of Jean Toomer's Cane, she understood the differences between herself and the people she studied even as she interacted intimately with them. And she was impatient with fakelore and dismissive of it. Those of us who enjoy the resonances of the song "John Henry" can at best find it bracing that she dismissed it as without roots in black life.
The metaphor for the folklorist given in Mules and Men is an independent, educated, and sexually adventurous woman. As a character in the book, she travels independently, even into dangerous situations, in search of material. Her possession of an automobile makes some of her male informants dependent on her. New Orleans Hoodoo men propose her assumption of their duties after they retire, but she knows that she will return to New York and compose a book. The life of the folklorist is not the life of the folk. The sexual dimensions of the book are obscure--almost certainly purposely so--but some women in Florida suspected her of intimacies with their men, several of the Hoodoo rituals required her nudity in the company of men, and one of the rites in particular obligated her to abstain from sexual intercourse for a set time. One of the illustrations of Mules and Men is an erotic ink drawing of Hurston's character prone on a bed--a depiction of one of the ceremonies in which she participated.
Holloway matches Hurston's unswerving faithfulness to folklore and her Kabnis-like awareness of being both part of those she studies and separate from them. If Hurston's demonstration that African Americans had a vibrant culture of their own was needed in the early twentieth century, then Holloway's contact with the funeral and mourning practices of ordinary people is needed in our own time. For we are awash in fakelores of the nation at large as well as of its racial and ethnic groups. Nostalgia pays and plays in our time. Our sense of folk heritages is often cartoonish. One of our challenges is to face and, in some instances, commit ourselves to traditions that have not been sentimentalized and commodified.
Holloway offers an evocative example of the traditional and the possibilities of her own relationship to it in the funeral of her mother, who, as Holloway was to do after her, had in Alabama joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority while at Talladega College. The chapter members planned an AKA ritual at the funeral--a reading of the name of the deceased and a placing of fronds of ivy (the AKA symbol) in her coffin, all performed by sorors in white dresses. Attending her own mother's funeral, but without the requisite white dress, Holloway was rebuffed in her request to share in the ritual. She continues: "Although I was mightily chagrined at the imposition of this regulating ritualistic symbolism, which loomed larger for the membership than did the fact that this was my mother for whom they were performing the ritual, my irritation did dissipate during the actual ceremony, which was quite beautiful and moving. I sat with my family in the church pews while my mother's sorors filled the aisles of the church and surrounded her coffin. Just as their ceremony came to its conclusion, one of the members came to me with the last ivy vine and asked me to place it in the casket. By that time, I was overcome with grief and memory, as well as the not-insignificant impact of the impressive presence of nearly a hundred women (all wearing white) and of the ivy that, in its abundance, was nearly spilling from the coffin where my dearest and beloved mother lay. And I walked forward, and tucked the last leaf into the soft folds of the fabric where she lay" (p. 172). One wonders whether the pseudo-traditions marketed around us could elicit such a deep response or so much loyalty. Indeed, the pseudo-traditional reverses the relationship between the individual and ritual that Holloway describes so well, subordinating a tradition to us instead of, as in the AKA rite, us to a tradition.
But when we move from Mules and Men to Passed On the metaphor for the folklorist changes, although each is true to its time. Hurston depicted herself as an independent woman and sexual adventurer: she was both distant from the folk and intimate with them. Holloway depicts herself as a woman in mourning, mother of an emotionally-disturbed son who had fallen from minor crimes against property, to imprisonment by officials unresponsive to his need for therapy, to capital crimes against persons, and to a last offense as he fled on foot before an armed, mounted prison guard. She is a mother who visits cemeteries, funeral homes, and mortuary schools (and sometimes listens to Prince as she does so--"I Would Die 4 U?" or "Sign o the Times?"). A degree of intimacy is created by the common experience of mourning for one's children.
Holloway's metaphor is just as central for our time as Hurston's was for hers. Most of us should know this because we know about the circumstances of many contemporary parents and children. If we forget this, Passed On reminds us, with its accounts of parents burying a child, congregations commemorating the innocent, youngsters murdering other young people, and children planning their own funerals. One boy, for instance, wants to be buried with his hands posed in "peace signs," while a girl leaves a letter with directives for her funeral, including, for her mother, "what to wear" (p. 148). African American culture has given the world figures through which we can understand America--the runaway slave, the migrant, the blues singer, the invisible man, the jazz player, to mention a few. The mourning mother is a figure in this line and is, unfortunately, likely destined for the same relevance and longevity.
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John D. Saillant. Review of Holloway, Karla F. C., Passed On: African American Mourning Stories, a Memorial.
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