Jewell Parker Rhodes, author of the book Yellow Moon, stopped by to share with us a piece she wrote.
For decades I’ve been haunted by rumors of African vampires; it’s especially apt since across diverse regions in Africa, vampires were the product of rumor. Responding to colonization, Africans told tales of white vampires, authorities who caused blacks to disappear. Vampire, fluid in its’ meaning, became associated with policemen, game rangers, many other authority figures whose jobs involved killing and blood. It was commonly understood, rumored, that often the blood on their weapons and uniforms belonged to humans. Just as it was understood that these authorities, if not white, were Africans who acted as instruments of colonial power.
Blood in all cultures is precious, and to see it drained from a body is abhorrent. In Swahili, the word wazimamoto literally means “men who extinguish fire.” Even before there was such a profession as that of a fireman, this name—wazimamoto—became metaphorically linked to vampires. Some speculate that its’ based upon rumors of men carrying buckets of blood, men who in blood-letting, literally drained the fire of human life.
Wazimamoto, bazimamoto in Luganda, eventually extended to the slavers who raided the African continent of humanity. Enslavers, colonizers, believed Africans to be superstitious barbarians. Yet through oral storytelling, Africans were indeed spreading necessary tales about the cultural vampirism of Portuguese, British, and French colonialism and the American slave trade. Africans, and later, American slaves, used narrative power as a transgressive and defensive response to colonization.
The wazimamoto is not a western vampire. The wazimamoto is a response and a warning about racist brutality, not a species preying on people and killing to survive.
I recommend Luise Walker’s wonderful book, Speaking With Vampires (Rumor and History in East and Central Africa), published by the University of California Press, 2000.
The wazimamoto vampire spirit gave me the opportunity to bring back Marie Laveau’s nineteenth-century nemesis—John—from my first novel, Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau. I still feel sympathy for John, whose life and character were corrupted by slavery, the ultimate colonization. Yet, if any character would be strong enough to resurrect as a wazimamoto, it would be John, resentful of women and their spiritual power.
Integrating the wazimamoto with the power of jazz seemed both natural and logical to me. Studying voodoo decades ago, many writers, most notably Imamu Amiri Baraka, theorized about the importance of voodoo ceremonies in Congo Square and how it encouraged the development of jazz. Music in America has remained integral to black religion and life. It is a cultural foundation—healing, transformative, and, when necessary, transgressive against racist ills. The wazimamoto is and yet isn’t out-of-place in twenty-first-century America. I tried to capture that even though the Civil Rights era had brought increased black political power, educational and social opportunities for African Americans, and negated the patriarchal and subversive relations between white men and women of color (most notably, the laws and social institutions banning miscegenation while promoting the domestic slavery of the quadroon balls), racism and the aftereffects of colonialism still have resonance and echoes in New Orleans.
I’ve enjoyed writing about Laveau’s descendant in the twenty-first-century—Dr. Marie Laveau. The first novel in this contemporary trilogy is Voodoo Season. Yellow Moon is the second. Hurricane Levee Blues will be the third—and, in this novel, I hope to explore the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent abandonment of New Orleans.
African-based spirituality never died in the Americas—whether in secular or religious manifestations, the Africans carted to the New World were not blank slates but people who influenced and imprinted American culture.
Marie Laveau—the great nineteenth-century Voodoo Queen of New Orleans who was a great gift to America—is the woman who healed, nurtured a community, owned her sexuality, communed with spirits, and, some say, walked on water.
In an era when racial and sexual biases tried to demean black life, black women in particular, she was a woman who rose up and said, “I am.
“I am Marie Laveau.”
May we all celebrate our beings and our names.
Copyright by Jewell Parker Rhodes, author of YELLOW MOON, www.JewellParkerRhodes.com.
About the book:
A jazzman, a wharf worker, a prostitute, all murdered. Wrists punctured, their bodies impossibly drained of blood. What connects them? Why are they rising as ghosts?
Marie Levant, the great-great granddaughter of the Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau knows better than anyone New Orleans’ brutal past—the legacy of slavery, poverty, racism and sexism—and as a Doctor at Charity Hospital’s ER, she treats its current victims.
When she sleeps, she dreams of blood. Rain, never-ending.
The river is rising and the yellow moon warns of an ancient evil—an African vampire—wazimamoto —a spirit created by colonial oppression.
The struggle becomes personal, as the wazimamoto is intent on destroying her and all the Laveau descendents. Marie fights to protect her daughter, lover, and herself from the wazimamoto’s seductive assault on both body and spirit.
Echoing with the heartache and triumph of the African American experience, the soulful rhythms of jazz, and the horrors of racial oppression, Yellow Moon gives us an unforgettable heroine—sexy, vulnerable, and mysterious—in Marie Levant, while it powerfully evokes a city on the brink of catastrophe.
Part two of the New Orleans trilogy that began with Voodoo Season—magical realist fiction that takes the legend of the voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, as imagined by Jewell Parker Rhodes in the bestselling Voodoo Dreams, into the present day.
Jewell Parker Rhodes is the author of five novels: Voodoo Dreams, Magic City, Douglass' Women, Voodoo Season, and Yellow Moon; and a memoir, Porch Stories: A Grandmother's Guide to Happiness. A sixth novel, Hurricane Levee Blues, and a children’s novel, Ninth Ward, will be published in 2010.
She has also authored two writing guides: Free Within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Authors, and The African American Guide to Writing and Publishing Non-Fiction. Her play, Voodoo Dreams; was cited as "Most Innovative" Drama in the 2000-2001 Professional Theater Season by the Arizona Republic and she is currently at work on a theatrical version of Douglass' Women.
Her work has been published in Germany, Italy, Canada, Turkey, and the United Kingdom and reproduced in audio and for NPR's "Selected Shorts." Her literary awards include: Yaddo Creative Writing Fellowship, the American Book Award, the National Endowment of the Arts Award in Fiction, the Black Caucus of the American Library Award for Literary Excellence, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for Outstanding Writing, two Arizona Book Awards, and a finalist citation for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. She has been a featured speaker at the Runnymeade International Literary Festival (University of London-Royal Holloway), Santa Barbara Writers Conference, Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference, and Warwick University, among others.
Recent fiction and essays have been anthologized in Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood, (ed., Berry), In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction, (ed. Gutkind), Gumbo, (ed., Golden and Harris) Children of the Night: Best Short Stories By Black Writers, (ed., Naylor) among others.
She has been awarded the California State University Distinguished Teaching Award, ASU's Dean's Quality Teaching Award, Outstanding Thesis Director from the Barrett Honors College, and the Outstanding Faculty Award from the College of Extended Education. She is a member of the Arizona/International Women's Forum and a Renaissance Weekend invitee.
Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes is the Artistic Director for Global Engagement and the Piper Endowed Chair of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University.
She received a Bachelor of Arts in Drama Criticism (Honors) a Master of Arts in English, and a Doctor of Arts in English (Creative Writing) from Carnegie-Mellon University.