Monday, August 18, 2014

Jumbee: Gradations of Racism

Henry S. Whitehead was a friend and correspondent of H.P. Lovecraft.  Before he moved to Dunedin, Florida—where Lovecraft once visited him—he worked as an Episcopal deacon, serving a parish in the Virgin Islands.  Several of his stories are set in that location, and typically involve encounters with the supernatural beliefs of another culture, namely West African Vodou, commonly known as Voodoo.

Whitehead’s stories are generally well written, devoid of purple prose, and show a good command of dialogue and narrative structure compared to other pulp fiction writers of his time.  A special concern of Whitehead’s was the hazards of fraternization with the local island population—white men “going native”.

Whitehead’s Jumbee originally appeared in Weird Tales in September 1926.  Other stories that appeared in that issue included H.P. Lovecraft’s He, and Edmond Hamilton’s novella, Across Space.  It is one of Whitehead’s earliest Voodoo stories.

In Jumbee, “Mr. Granville Lee, a Virginian of Virginians”—that is, a son of the Confederacy—consults one Jaffray Da Silva, regarding island legends and magical practices.  In particular, he wants to learn more about “jumbees”.  These are the spirits of evil people who continue their malevolent activities after death.  Lee has come to St. Croix to spend the winter, in hopes of recuperating from exposure to mustard gas in the recently concluded Great War.

Da Silva obliges by telling Lee a story about the events surrounding the death of his friend Hilmar Iversen. The story Da Silva tells is amusing and told very matter-of-factly.    He and Iversen had made a pact:  “The one of us who ‘went out’ first, was to try to warn the other of it.”  The rest of Da Silva’s tale involves the implementation of this pact, which is also embellished with the appearance of the “Hanging Jumbee”—there are numerous varieties of Jumbee—as well as a ‘sheen’, the local version of a were-wolf.

Whitehead uses his narrator to display his knowledge and affection for the local system of supernatural beliefs.   These are lovingly described by the author, who succeeds in creating exotic creepiness here and there in the story.  The effect is similar in tone to Manly Wade Wellman’s inventory of local Appalachian things-that-go-bump-in-the-night in his The Desrick on Yandro (1952).   Da Silva and his eager listener take it for granted that everything he is telling about the jumbees is true and easily observable.

Whitehead’s depiction of his narrator, Jaffray Da Silva is interesting.  Early in the story he educates his reader with this remarkable explanation of racial titration:

“Mr. Jaffray Da Silva was one-eighth African. He was, therefore, by island usage, ‘colored’, which is as different from being ‘black’ in the West Indies as anything that can be imagined.  Mr. Da Silva had been educated in the continental European manner.  In his every word and action, he reflected the faultless courtesy of his European forbears…To the West Indian mind, a man whose heredity is seven-eighths derived from gentry…is entitled to be treated accordingly.”

A little later in Jumbee, Whitehead offers this description of the interaction between Mr. Lee, the southern gentleman, and Da Silva:

                        “Please proceed, sir,” urged Mr. Lee, and was quite unconscious that he had just used a word which, in his native South, is reserved for gentlemen of pure Caucasian blood.

What is going on here?  Whitehead has a man of African descent tell his story—Da Silva is the expert, here—and carefully parses out the man’s racial heredity.  The core of Da Silva’s tale is the fulfillment of an agreement between him and a white friend. And Whitehead has a son of the Confederacy address Da Silva as ‘sir’.  Modern readers may cringe at the casual prejudice implicit in the story, and wonder at the bogus science that supported categorization of people at the level of “eighths” of a blood type.  That these ideas were popular and widely accepted in Whitehead’s time is cold comfort to those whose ancestors suffered oppression because of them.  

Yet unlike Lovecraft, whose racial and ethnic prejudice was irrational and unthinking, (and essentially unchanged at the end of life), Whitehead exhibits a more self-conscious racism, and is more sensitive to nuance and paradox in relationships between Anglo-Saxons and people of African descent.   This is still a long way from civil rights and diversity training, but is suggestive of the beginnings of changing attitudes circa mid 1920s America.

Here are earlier posts that discuss the work Henry S. Whitehead:

1. Homunculus (Cassius)
2. Mirrors, Upon Further Reflection (The Trap, with H.P. Lovecraft)
3. Ghosts as Dream Imagery (Across the Gulf)
4. Case Study: Homunculi Redux (Passing of a God)

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