Speculations… Shadows… Brown Girl…
The second book discussion at The Shadows Took Shape exhibition was focused on Brown Girl in the Ring, written by Nalo Hopkinson and published in 1998. The discussion was co-moderated by writer and artist, Rosamond King and by me, the producer and director of the up-coming, Invisible Universe documentary. I opened the discussion with an audio-visual presentation, which focused on the history of representations of Voodoo and Zombies in popular media like books and films, specifically in the United States. My presentation was then followed by a short discussion of the book with Ms. King and the audience.
I opened my talk with a slide presentation on the origins of the genre, which I stated had three major causes. The first cause was the military invasion and occupation of the Republic of Haiti by the United States between 1915 and 1934, which filled the white American imagination with stories of exotic locales and of the African derived customs and religious practices of the Caribbean. The second cause was the success of the travel book, The Magic Island, by William Seabrook, a world famous travel writer, who claimed to be the first non-practitioner, eyewitness of the rituals and practices of Haitian Voodoo, as well as an initiate into the religion. The third cause was the rise in popularity of the horror film in the United States during the 1930’s, where independent producers and Hollywood alike, competed to financially benefit from this early horror film wave and the success of films like Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932).
These three elements led to the production of the first Voodoo/Zombie themed film, White Zombie (1932), starring Bela Lugosi and independently produced by the Halperin Brothers. The film, partly inspired by Seabrook’s book, told the story of a white sugarcane factory owner/Zombie master who is hired by a “West Indian” aristocrat to zombify a young American bride, but who instead double-crosses the aristocrat and plans to abduct the bride for himself. White Zombie would establish the tropes of future Voodoo/Zombie films, including the mechanisms of zombification, but most especially the idea that the practice of Voodoo and zombification were an inherently evil system to be feared and defeated by Westernized ideologies, science and heroes.
Over thirty years and dozens of films later, the Zombie film trope would experience a radical change that would alter its origin story and dramatically separate it from its religious and Caribbean, née, African roots. George A. Romero’s, Night of the Living Dead (1968) single-handedly transformed the Zombie figure from a mindless, voiceless being, or state of being, who has lost their autonomy through nefarious means (not unlike a slave or even the island nation of Haiti during the U.S. military invasion/occupation), and into a flesh, eating ghoul, whose sole purpose is over-consumption and superficial destruction. And though the fear of the Zombie was now separated from its original worldview system of Voodoo, the idea of fear and negativity surrounding the Zombie figure continued to persist in films.
After this short historical talk, I brought the presentation back to the subject of the discussion, the book, Brown Girl in the Ring. The novel, by the Jamaican born, Canadian raised writer Nalo Hopkinson explores a near future, dystopian Toronto, that has experienced economic collapse, where the rich have fled the city en masse, leaving the poor, mostly immigrant, communities of color behind and to fend for themselves and survive in an unforgiving urban environment and against a very real and a very powerful, albeit fantastic menace to their new society. On a story level, the fantastically convincing, award winning novel is filled with duppies, dieties, soucouyants and Zombies that maneuver in and out of the storyline in a believable manner. Also, in contrast to the completely negative imagery presented of Voodoo/Zombiism in popular media prior to the book’s publication, Brown Girl presents a story that authenticates the guiding religious system, as primarily for healing, communication and protection and secondarily as a method for negative power. Hopkinson’s Brown Girl establishes its protagonists as practitioners of a religion, that they call “serving the spirits”, that is used to bring cohesion and unity to their disturbed communities. Brown Girl says that this power is not inherently negative or evil, as Hollywood cinema ideology would sanction over the prior 50 years and that an individual or group has a choice in how this power is utilized.
I believe that Brown Girl in the Ring is a powerful story of dis-empowered individuals and communities, who, even with their different beliefs and understandings of the world, are ultimately bound together by a non-Westernized worldview that successfully sustains them. And in my estimation, here in lies the real value of the work done by Hopkinson. Brown Girl in the Ring is a historically thoughtful and imaginatively speculative reclamation of a powerful cultural system that has been bastardized by capitalistic and white supremacy value systems. It is my hope that with more exposure, Brown Girl in the Ring, the book and hopefully its upcoming movie version, will reappropriate the tropes of the Voodoo/Zombie film, and inspire others to utilize them in a way that is more conducive to the struggles of Black people around the world. In my opinion, this is one of the best uses of Black SF/Afrofuturism, as we as creators, critics and audiences shift paradigms and our realities with narratives that are more engaging and supportive of our existences.