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  • Keep Your Head to the Sky: Interpreting African American Home Ground
  • Jim Comer
Keep Your Head to the Sky: Interpreting African American Home Ground. Edited by Grey Gundaker and Tynes Cowan (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1998. viii plus 344pp.).

Grey Gundaker, an anthropologist at the College of William and Mary, has collected these fourteen essays under the theme of “home ground”. This term, never defined, is connected to the wish to have “control over the surroundings in which one lives”(p.15). The topics are wide-ranging, from the novel The Cheneysville Incident by David Bradley (about fugitive slaves in Maryland) to a photo essay about yard decorations. The central theme is hard to see in many of them. The writing quality is also varied.

The opening essay by Gundaker says confusingly that the decorations are “part of processes that involve multiple expressive modes and communicative channels, and not as a distinct genre of material production comparable to, say, crafting homemade objects of clay or metal...” (p.14). This language is unnecessary; discussion of yard decoration was enough to lure this reader to the book. But there is no systematic analysis of yard art or “home ground”. Gundaker tells us that four themes recur: “protection and safekeeping, personal virtuosity, community improvement, and honor to family and ancestors”. The themes mentioned here are common to African American communities, but is there any evidence that European-Americans would not recognize them? Gundaker criticizes “either/or approaches” which seek the origins of such customs as bottle trees and flowers planted in truck tires, but some at least of the cultural practices under examination are originally European. The book’s theme was interesting, but the authors don’t hew to it closely.

The essays are in three groups. In the first, “Cosmology, Moral Force, and [End Page 452] Expression in African American Domestic Landscapes”, the essay “Bighearted Power: Kongo Presence in the Landscape and Art of Black America”, art historian Robert Farris Thompson continues his effort to trace Kongolese roots for American cultural practices. While the presence of African pots, pipes and words in the American South is a historical fact, Thompson’s claim that the rural practice of planting flowers in car or truck tires is African in origin is dubious. George Ordish’s The Living Garden identifies raised beds in Elizabethan England, and in Virginia, the practice was associated with working-class whites. In his description of folk artist Tyree Guyton’s use of semi-magical practices such as nailing tires to the walls of houses to chase away drug dealers from his Detroit neighborhood, Thompson slips from relativism into near fantasy. In his assertion that “Gullah Jack” (Jack Pritchard) brought “the nkisi tradition” to the United States, Thompson is speculating. Very little is known about Pritchard, Marie Laveau, or any other 19th-century voodooists. However, Thompson’s inquiries into folklore are solid and believable.

“Sacred Places and Holy Ground”, by Alice Jones, comes from her work at Stagville Plantation, in Durham, North Carolina. Jones clearly works hard at educating the public about the enslaved Africans who built Stagville, whose lives are passed over in silence by most tourists. Her citations, however, include only an encyclopedia and four books on Africa. Her style is more romantic memoir than history: “Something within me knew that the walking stick was important, but I had nothing concrete with which to work. Only the feeling that the stick was speaking to me. Perhaps unravelling the language of the stick would help me to better interpret the person who created it.” (p. 93). Her assertion that voodoo was the universal religion of enslaved Africans in the South is doubtful: other scholars have found that voodoo ceremonies and temples were local to Louisiana and the Carolina Lowcountry. Despite an evocative description of libations poured by her and by a Dr. Maafe from Ghana, historical evidence for her claims is lacking.

The second section covers “Symbolic Geographies, Contestation and Reclamation”. Elizabeth Barnum’s “thick description” of community parks in Barbados in 1990–1995 personifies scholarship “with one’s feet on the ground”. Originating as efforts by Barbadians to beautify their communities, the parks featured...

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pp. 452-454
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