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  • Do Black Ghosts Matter? Harriet Jacobs’ Spiritualism
  • Erin E. Forbes (bio)

1. voices from below

Since Avery F. Gordon published Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (1997), the connection between haunting and African American cultural production has received increasingly significant critical attention.1 Following Marx and Derrida, Gordon defines haunting as the presence of absences: ghosts represent those past experiences, times, places, or persons that influence the present. In this metaphorical register, haunting evokes the individual and collective traumas that have shaped African American history and culture, and left a historical record marked, primarily, by its many lacunae. Additionally, the West African veneration of vitally-present ancestors typifies many cultures influenced by these traditions, including African American culture.2 Thus, it is unsurprising that the most acclaimed twentieth-century African American literary works evoke ghostliness. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) turns on the appearance of a young woman who may or may not be the revenant of a child whom her mother murders to prevent her re-enslavement. Yet whether Beloved’s haunting [End Page 443] is actual or psychological is ultimately irrelevant to the larger story. Likewise, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) begins by invoking and quickly disavowing the spectral: “I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms.” The narrator, while “invisible,” nevertheless insists that he is a man “of flesh and bone,” and not a ghost.3 Yet Ellison’s pun on “spook,” a derogatory term for African Americans, suggests his awareness that spirit is not so easily separated from substance.

Despite this deliberate blurring of the material and immaterial in the enormously influential work of writers like Morrison and Ellison, most scholarship on the spectral nature of African American cultural production has identified haunting as an imaginative device that represents history, memory, and trauma.4 As Stephan Palmié notes, “nothing brings out positivism more quickly than what we are talking about here: ghosts. We cannot seem to resist transcribing spirits, gods, or the work of witchcraft into … figments of the individual or collective imagination that may be profitably analyzed in terms of their psychological or social function but that cannot be taken literally as referents to a reality that is really ‘out there.’”5 Yet if we examine how haunting surfaces materially in African American literature, a different perspective emerges.

In contrast to the critical focus that regards haunting as abstract and metaphorical, I attend here to its material and historical manifestations in a key nineteenth-century African American literary work, Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), in which Jacobs, writing as Linda Brent, relates her life story. In the decades prior to and following the Emancipation Proclamation, a religious movement known as Spiritualism arose in the United States. Spiritualists sought tangible contact with the dead in order to create a more perfect society. Understood as an empirical religion of proof, Spiritualism profoundly shaped nineteenth-century culture. Yet it was subsequently [End Page 444] relegated to a historical footnote. Invisible Man’s opening lines—“I am not … one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms”—speak to the movement’s discredited legacy. By 1952, ectoplasm was the stuff of cheap Hollywood thrills, but this strange substance first appeared in late-nineteenth-century Spiritualist demonstrations. In these circles, it referenced a vaporous or viscous substance that emanates from a trance medium as a manifestation of the material world and was often seen as demonstrable proof of ghosts. As an evidence-based practice, Spiritualism sought to verify material relations between the living and the dead. Simultaneously, Spiritualists believed that this haunting could teach the living how to build a more perfect society in the here-and-now.6 The modern movement began in 1848 with the Rochester Rappings, mysterious sounds that two teenagers—the soon-to-be-famous Fox sisters—interpreted as messages from the spirit world in Hydesville, N.Y., a small town near Rochester. In addition to ectoplasm and mediums, Spiritualism gave rise to the Ouija board and séances; it even, some have argued, solidified the now-widely held idea that individual identity persists after death in a...