Tuesday, 12 November 2013
Jessica’s Rainbow: empowering the spirit
I should have known that when the tracks, particularly "Many rivers to cross" by Jimmy Cliff found their way into my Saturday night/Sunday morning - someone was travelling home. I play this to the memory of Aunty Jessica Huntley who gave so much. Clothed in brilliant white, her locks gleaming, being led by the comforting arms of her ancestors her stroll through the light will be a powerful moment of illumination. We will watch and wait for your rainbow aunty. And we'll try not to cry but always remember how you tickled us with laughter.
The above is reprinted from a facebook post I did following the news that Jessica Huntley had passed. I no longer believe in casual coincidences. If, for example, I ask the rain not to fall, then I expect a favourable response to my cosmic request. Instead of predicted rain, there will be none. Again, if I have called for a rainbow, as a sign of harmony, transformation or ascension when someone passes, I know the rainbow will appear. And it will choose a precise moment for me to observe it. We have seen many powerful tributes for Jessica and naturally we’ll see many more. I wanted to give some thoughts to the power and continuity of the spirit when it ceases to be part of the mundane but returns to its source of origin.
The aim is to understand how we can effectively remember and communicate with spirit. As Anthony Ephirim-Donkor writes when elders attain “existential perfection” they are “ensured a perpetual place in the ancestral world. They are remembered on earth when succeeding generations invoke their names socio-politically and spiritually,” (1997, p.148). The socio-political and spiritual invocation of our ancestors ensures a purposeful, effective connectivity between the physical and the spiritual worlds. This empowers successive generations to more meaningfully take up the challenge of our continued struggles. We do not have to feel weighted down by loss but ignited by the fire of the ancestral spirit and become consciously engaged in what might be called rituals of liberation.
Reverend Claudette Douglas shared a powerful tribute for Jessica at the funeral on 31st October, in which she reminded us that Africans were “god people.” Our survival has in part depended on our proper understanding of this divineness. This is not an instance or call of vanity – the head swelling notion of being identified as “gods and goddesses.” It refers to a real understanding that we can summon or halt rain - cause thunderstorms and natural calamities to disrupt the horrendous transportation of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. Failure of technology meant that Claudette had to speak from the heart (instead of her netbook); this was not coincidental, but precise. We needed to hear her passion, feel empowered not by the words alone but the spirit of Jessica through which they came. We were all moved by her chanting of George Campbell’s poem, “History Makers” in which he acknowledges the strength and power of ordinary, hard- working women whose contributions to society are invaluable:
“Women child bearers
Wistful toil sharers
Hammers and rocks.”
We all responded to the spiritual vibration of Claudette’s tribute which I see as a sign of our need for empowering rituals of liberation that will reconnect us to our god-centredness. It will also reunite us with those long submerged tools of resistance that are not beyond the rhetoric of politics and activism but serve to complement them.
I disregard casual coincidences because I’m convinced of the preciseness of spirit. I believe in the complementarity of physical time and spirit time. Whilst physical time has its limitations, spirit time is a divine alignment to which we must attune ourselves if we are to effectively enact our rituals, reenergise our creativity and regenerate our capacity for a sustained fight against injustice. Numbers, recurrent sequences or simultaneous experiences are part of divine order and timing that we often have little choice but to respect. And if we respect them we’ll always observe their precision and in time understand their signs – thus preparing us for the next. In this way we take nothing for granted but acknowledge and embrace the power of spirit.
On the night of the 12th October/ morning of 13th I found myself watching the movie The Harder They Come. I had linked the soundtrack with the passing of my uncle a few years ago. The lamenting, woeful tune of “Many Rivers” would tear me up emotionally. As I watched the film, the sound tracks scoring in and out, I imagined my uncle’s spirit was circling and maybe needed to be remembered. I allowed myself to drift into the memory of his passing, and felt the grief of that period. I didn’t finish the movie that night, but the next morning. When I woke up, I marked the date. This is because of an intrigue with sequences, but also I try to remember people’s birthday. I remembered that it was Herman Wallace’s birthday – posted a message to him – marking that he had been taken into transition days before. We had celebrated, amidst bitter tears, his release from the horrific Louisiana prison where under the wicked US penal system he had been detained in inhumane conditions for over 41 years, and where they had attempted to crush his spirit. I knew his funeral was on the 12th – the day before his birthday and had marvelled at that precision. But now the 13th October would have another sequential significance, not least because it was a few days before my birthday.
It was “news” you couldn’t at first believe. You replay in your mind the last conversation or communication - that email you didn’t immediately respond to. You search the imagination for what? Some sort of sign that you knew. Of course the basic signs were there – these relate to the limitations of the physical body. At 86 you accept the gracious innings –not the age alone – but the full-on, purposeful contribution of a life dedicated to the struggle for justice in all spheres. This extraordinary work/life has been well commemorated by those who knew Jessica more intimately and longer than I (Margaret Busby, Luke Daniels, Kimani Nehusi, Eusi Kwayana and many others). Once there was confirmation that the passing was real, despite recalling the last energetic laughter and sparring, I waited for the sign of spiritual precision.
The extraordinary and purposeful life of Jessica Huntley is an expression of what Anthony Ephirim-Donkor refers to as “ethical existence and generativity.” Generativity he borrows from Erik Erikson’s conceptual theories of psychological development. It refers to creativity as opposed to stagnation - of generating good experiences (actions) and altruistic contributions during the period of adulthood. These actions will guide future generations and align with the individual’s sense of responsibility to and hope for humanity. So “ethical existence and generativity” refers to the “ideal life” an individual, not only lives, but represents as their “purpose of being” (1997, pp.107-116). This “purpose of being” originates with God and accompanies the soul from that divine point of origin. A life that satisfies the soul – that is lived purposefully and in pursuit, consciously or not of “ethical existence and generativity” - attempts to effectively fulfil its divine purpose. It may be defeated physically by death – but that only applies to its earthly contribution of an extended existential goal or journey. Though the individual’s journey and “purpose of being” ends at death (in the earthly/physical plane) it continues spiritually on its return to the ancestral world. The sign I was waiting for – the rainbow - would be a symbol that the spirit is en route to be reunited with the spiritual (or ancestral) world, whilst maintaining a connection with the physical.
The rainbow appeared on the seventh day after Jessica’s transition. It had started raining early that morning and continued gently crackling against the window when I awoke. I drew the curtain slightly and noticed something beautiful about the sky. Against a mound of dark grey clouds there was an area of resplendent light and perfectly clear blue sky. I knew there had to be a rainbow so I rushed to every window in search of it. I saw it from one of the back rooms, arching over the tops of red brick homes, casting on them a momentary majesty, which my camera hasn’t properly captured. I had previously observed these rainbow signs when someone passed on my own, but this time I called Ateinda to share it with me. We declared it Jessica’s rainbow. And so it was.
We may mark the rainy weather as nothing unusual for England. We will accept that the recent storm was predictable for October; I recall a powerful one on my birthday in 1988. The lightning and thunder of Shango that we observed when a few of us were “opening to spirit” might be considered coincidental, following our invocation to Oshun at a nearby river. But I think that would be a failure of “god people” to give proper respect to the signs. For me the rains, thunders, lightning and storms have not been the casual predictions of the weather for this time of year. Even as I write this there’s a blinding light, splashing an iridescent beauty across the morning sky. Trees, looking frail with their few and waning leaves, try to resist the wind straining their branches. The sunlight bursting into the house sparks a magnificent and nurturing communion with my spirit. Now when I connect all this to the essence of Jessica, I am enacting a sort of cosmic rite that reinforces the power of spirit. Although we might be persuaded to accept the foregoing experiences of rains and thundering as nothing extraordinary, the same cannot be said for the intense bout of rains at the Nine-Night ritual.
Following the pouring of libation, there was a powerful invocation to the spirits by the drummers. The marquee in the garden held as many of us who wanted to be upfront and close to those heart-rousing beats. The drummers, led by Jessica’s son Chauncey were pounding and pounding - the singing not quite matching that force though the effort and feeling was there. The drumming was the customary calling on the Nine-Night to the spirit to return to its physical home; the drums will always invoke spirit in this way but we have to be prepared for and recognise the signs. There was no mistake that the rains which followed those drums, as though competing with their rhythms, lashing hard against the marquee signalled that the spirit was there. The drums and the communication with spirit, yielding its sign through the rains, reminded us of what “god people” are capable of. The collective energy, marking our reverence for this Queen Mother as she begins the journey of return to the ancestral realm was beautifully enacted at the Nine-Night. The rains comforted. We were all energised because everyone understood the sign. In this way we maintain continuity with the spirit. This continuity, however, should have socio-political and spiritual significance otherwise its literally mundane.
Many of the Pan-African or African centred meetings I attend open with the pouring of libation. We call the names of our ancestors, familiar and public (Yaa Asantewa, Nanny of the Maroons. Harriet Tubman, Walter Rodney, Thomas Sankhara, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley, Mbalia Camara, and so on). The common feature of these ancestors is their revolutionary contribution (or spirit) to our collective struggle for total liberation. Jessica Huntley will now earn her splash of water, or liquor or name drop to the ritual. But what would it really mean. Obviously, libation is our essential expression of commemorating the ancestors. Their spirit is kept alive by it, but I wonder how more effectual we can make this call to them. How can we be empowered by them to take our struggle forward, thereby building on their strength and the perpetual unity between the physical and spiritual worlds? I mean that if we only pour the libatory liquid and call their names without truly expecting some kind of effective exchange are we perhaps creating an imbalance between our world and theirs. These meetings aren’t set up with the ritual intention to ask for direction about where to strike the enemy; or for the purpose of divining a ritual (or rituals) which might assist the actual freeing of our Mumias, Hermans and others from the evil US penal system, for example. My use of the word “evil” is not candid – I mean that this system is a form of negative sorcery that destroys the well-being of individuals, community and our humanity. Historically and traditionally we have used rituals of liberation to transform this negative into positive and holistic remedies for the betterment of our communities.
If we are enacting rituals to communicate with our ancestors, especially those who lived exemplary purposeful lives in pursuit of justice, then we ought to have some measurable expectation of them. The drums at the Nine-Night we understood to be the cause for the rains. We all – collectively- accepted this. A belief in coincidences would lead us to doubt that our collective and spiritual will caused the rains – through a direct communication led by the drumming and chanting. When in that facebook post I told Jessica I will watch and wait for your rainbow that’s exactly what I did, with the confidence that it would appear. It is therefore incumbent on us to empower the spirit by calling on them to assist us in our continued fight against injustice, otherwise the force of that spirit wanes, becomes tired of being called but not expected to perform (as would be observed when someone goes into trance during a drumming session). This is the socio-political and spiritual emphasis of honouring our ancestors.
Rituals of liberation featured in the struggles of both Tousant L’Overture and Paul Bogle, the two revolutionaries that inspired the Bogle L’Ouverture Publication co-founded by Jessica and Eric Huntley. Traditional and spiritual means complemented the physical fight to yield a more formidable outcome. In the case of Bogle, Native Baptists, linking their religion to political activism, played an influential role in the 1865 Rebellion. A voodoo ceremony was used strategically for the planning of the 1791 Revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture in Saint Domingue. The legendary Nanny of the Maroons wielded power to fight the European enslavers by being skilled in the craft of herbs and plants, as memorialised by Lorna Goodison in her poem “Nanny:”
I was schooled in the green-giving ways
of the roots and vines
made accomplice to the healing acts
of Chainey root, fever grass & vervain
Grace Nichols also eulogised Nanny as an “Ashanti priestess/and giver of charms” someone who nurtured spirit and combined guerrilla tactics with African magic as a means of resistance (in I is a long Memoried Woman). Again, we can comfortably refute the coincidence of Jessica’s birthday, 23rd of February which is aligned with the spirit of revolution as featured in the Berbice Uprising in Guyana 1763. The sign is not simply coincidental it is precise; hence the deliberate cosmic vibration of naming their daughter Accabre after one of the progressive leaders of the rebellion; and hence Jessica’s revolutionary spirit – alighting her path to immortality.
Sister Cecilia’s stunning rendition of Mahalia Jackson’s “How I got over” at the funeral delighted us by the notion that the spirit would be reunited with its saviour. I’d like to think that the rainbow was the perfecting sign of Jessica’s transition, having lived an ideal and purposeful life. This is how I would answer the sombre incantation of the spirit – “falling and rising all these years, you know my soul look back and wonder, how did I make it over?”
Different cultural traditions have their own interpretations for the rainbow. In Chinese wisdom it is represented by a two headed dragon which intercedes for people by relaying thoughts and prayers from the earth bound head to the heaven bound one. In Norse mythology, the rainbow is regarded as a celestial bridge that leads the way to the ancestors or the realm of the gods. The rainbow arches – connecting heaven and earth – and thereby represents an opening or some route/crossing (either above, the bridge or below, through the arch) as a way of getting through or over (symbolic of enlightenment). So for Native Americans the rainbow is a multi-coloured serpent used by a brave young man going through initiation to ride to the spiritual world and be directed along the physical path toward illumination.
Most of us identify the rainbow with the biblical story of the flood. This was a period of reconciliation, in which God promised he wouldn’t again destroy the earth so catastrophically. The rainbow was a sign of this divine promise. It is a sign of the restoration of cosmic order after storms; though I saw Jessica’s rainbow prior to our recent storm. A rainbow is not simply seen, however. To properly acknowledge it is to behold the eminence of a mesmerising moment that connects spirit and matter. For me, this was Jessica’s ladder of ascension. In Vodoun (Dahomey spiritual tradition), one of the attributes of the loa (spirit or goddess) Aida-Wedo is the rainbow. She is represented by the rainbow serpent whose scales reflect the iridescent colours of the rainbow. Aida-Wedo represents strength and integrity – that which integrates as symbolised by the many colours of the rainbow when separated from light. The serpent lives in the water –signifying the manifestation of the rainbow as the union of sunlight and water. Water is synonymous with healing, renewal and elimination. Snakes, rain and water also relate to ideas of fertility and feminine energy. The rainbow god of Ashanti also takes the form of a snake. The snake is one of the attributes of Mammy Wata, a deity rooted in the traditions of different parts of Africa which enslaved Africans took with them across the Atlantic. In some traditions, serpents are believed to represent the incarnation of deceased relatives or ancestors.
I cite these examples in my meaningful effort to interpret the sign of Jessica’s rainbow. Our traditions have bequeathed us an array of significant methods to interpret and empower the spirit and effectively enact the rituals of liberation that “god people” know. For me, the power of that mesmeric moment when we observe the rainbow is that it symbolises collectiveness and the colourful rhythm of unity. Invocations to and remembrance of spirit should not simply be mundane or half-hearted and lacklustre. Rather they should reflect a formidable complement to the physical acts and objects of commemoration by which we will continue to honour the extraordinary life of Jessica Huntley.
Mammi Water spirit,a powerful entity who must be honoured if she chooses you.
Some sources of interest
African Spirituality - Anthony-Ephirim-Donkor, Africa World Press, 1997
I is a Long Memoried Woman, Grace Nichols, 1993
First Poems, George Campbell, Caribbean Modern Classics, 1945
Guardian obituary by Margaret Busby: http://bit.ly/1axGjTU
Pambazuka News tribute"A great tree has fallen": http://bit.ly/1izNUEk
Creation for Liberation (1979 & 1981) YouTube video: http://bit.ly/19ax2lg
YouTube video - Jessica & Margaret: http://bit.ly/H8YVR5
Illustrated images of Jessica and Eric Huntley: Mervyn Weir
NOTE: If you would like to make a personal tribute of your experience of the Bogle L'Ouverture bookshop, or aunty Jessica please email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org