Sorceresses to Healers: Dismantling the Negative Stereotypes in Caribbean Obeah Culture

Gabrielle J Audain

As a child, my mother would tell me stories about her experience in Haiti. Rather than being in the city, she was in the mountains surrounded by the croaking frogs, mosquitoes, and greenery. She would narrate to me about the beauty of the people, the delectable food she ate and most importantly the healing and protecting rituals performed by natives of Aux Cayes. My mother reiterated to one of the ladies with whom she was staying with, that her back was in pain. The woman asked her to lay down on her stomach and proceeded to make a tiny slit with a razor near her spine, she then took a glass and flipped it over to cover the same slit she had made. As she did this, the glass acted as a suction cup; causing a black substance to draw out of my mother’s back. I often refer back to this story when the conversation of obeah arises. Due to the racism and whitewashing enforced by western society, obeah is received as an act of evil and demonic rituals which result in the harming or death of others. When in actuality, obeah is a system of beliefs that uses spirits, song and lyric, and herbal remedies as a method of healing and protection. The dismantling of the negative stereotypes connected to obeah is necessary as it is harmful, ignorant and continues to put the individuals who perform these specific rituals in danger.

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Obeah is a belief system or religion that originated in Africa. However, due to the effects of colonialism and the dispersion of African people throughout the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and South and North America, Obeah is no longer owned by one specific culture. The origins of obeah consist of a considerable amount of secret beliefs and practices that involve prayer and the mastering of supernatural spiritual forces. The practices usually performed are in treating illnesses, protecting one or more against harm, avenging wrongs, and bringing favorable fortunes. While specific beliefs and practices are embraced differently varying on the location, the practices of obeah share two fundamental characteristics: (1) its method involving the manipulation and control of supernatural forces, usually through the use of material objects and recitation of spells and (2) it’s primary concern with divination (e.g., foretelling or finding lost or stolen goods), healing and bringing good fortune, as well as the protection from harm (Bilby and Handler, 154).

When specialists perform obeah, it is often performed by one who specializes in plant medicines. Unlike westernized medicine, there was no male domination when it came to obeah practitioners. It was a position that both men and women could partake in. It is essential to mention that an individual cannot casually decide that they will become a professional in the practice of obeah. It is a skill that is passed down generationally, which speaks to the concealment of certain rituals.

According to the English Oxford Dictionary, obeah is defined as: a kind of sorcery practiced, especially in the Caribbean. It then continues to define the word sorcery as: the use of magic, especially black magic. The definition of each term is filled with fear and misrepresentation. Naturally, as the west was exposed to the non-traditional ways of healing, individuals who were understanding of the principles of Christianity and other westernized religions later plagued what was taboo to them. Being that the performance of obeah was frowned upon, the structure of law and politics was then applied to police individuals who use obeah for the sake of their spirituality and health. Taking action to practice obeah was punishable by lashing or imprisonment. White Europeans declared the falsehood and unfavorable gaze of obeah during the period of slavery in the British Caribbean. This view was developed out of fear as the slaves would use practices of obeah to resist against their masters and eventually to avenge against them. Due to their power and the upper hand in society, white Europeans were able to distort the principles of the social role that obeah executed in the lives of West Indian slaves and their descendants who continued to practice during post-emancipation.

Determined to keep the deception correlated to obeah alive, visual and literary representations developed current stereotypes about the Caribbean people and their use of obeah. For instance, in Walt Disney Pictures’ Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), filmmakers applied a wide range of negative stereotypes about Indigenous Caribbean people who practiced obeah. It depicted the native people of Carib as cannibals. In the film, the cast selected to fulfill the roles to create the indigenous tribe were speaking a language that was distinctly fictionalized. The language was no more than clicks at the tongue and mushed English words.

Feeding into the cannibalism stereotype, members of this tribe proceed to lift Jack Sparrow, tie him up and prepare his body to be roasted over a pit of fire. While they prepare to eat him, they are dancing, chanting, and beating on drums. As if their offensive portrayal of performing an indigenous ritual wasn’t harmful enough, the physical appearance of these actors were altered done intentionally to cause fear in the audience. Individuals of the faux tribe had sharpened teeth, aggressive eyes, black painted faces, and large bodies. They were then accessorized with limbs and bones that they wore as jewlerey. The Chief of Carib, Charles Williams, later criticized Disney’s producers for depicting their native people as savages and cannibals for resisting against early European colonizers and protecting their land (Kolhatkar). This visual representation goes to show that the inflictors of oppression will continue to tell and profit off of false narratives.

The use of obeah was used as a form of resistance and protection against colonizers during the period of slavery. Obeah was the only thing that enslaved people had the agency to; as they were the only ones who acquired the knowledge to maneuver it.

To further argue the necessary dismantlement of dangerous stereotypes in correlation to obeah, I will use novels written by Caribbean women to highlight the religion’s healing qualities.

In Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Rhys uses the characters Antoinette and Christophine to fight back against a colonizing force with the use of obeah. Antoinette Cosway is to marry a young man who only takes fascination in her dowry rather than her and her heart. The situation symbolizes the European conquerors’ interest of the Caribbean as they intended to exploit various islands for the sake of their riches, disregarding the people and other life that was already existing on those islands. Antoinette is desperate to keep her identity and to be wanted by her husband. She then turns to Christophine, an obeah woman who has served as a mother figure to Antoinette, and asks Christophine for her assistance with her plan; “That is what I wish, and that is why I came here. You can make people love or hate or…or die” (Rhys, 67).

Antoinette convinces Christophine to practice obeah on her husband; however, the husband sees right through this trap and doesn’t consume the potion which was explicitly designed for him. Although the attempt of the ritual did fail, it did stir enough fear in him to keep his guard up. Making him aware that he will not gain his victory without a struggle.

In the novel, Christophine is not just an obeah woman. She is a symbol of the power and magic that is willing to take the colonizer head on. As a black servant, one would assume that her social position would deem her ass powerless in the structure that is racism (Cutter, 132). She is the most powerful and independent woman in the novel. Christophine is to be admired in this novel as she is viewed to be linked to a traditional African past (Sternlicht, 117). Determined to resist against other colonial structures, Christophine refused marriage. She is blunt when exercising her views on marriage, “All women, all colors, nothing but fools. Three children I have. One living in this world, each one a different father, but no husband, I thank my God. I keep my money. I don’t give it to no worthless man” (Rhys 66). Christophine’s resistance towards marriage completely clashes with the ideologies of Rochester or the colonizer. Throughout the novel, Rochester consistently referred to Christophine as nothing but a black servant. He is adamant in exploiting her as he believes that she should live in subjugation. However, through Christophine’s belief in obeah, it grants her agency and protection.

While obeah served as a force of resistance and protection against colonizers, it also aided the mental, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse that was inflicted upon the enslaved people, women in particular. In Maryse Condé’s novel, I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem, Condé takes characters Tituba and Mama Yaya to demonstrate what the healing qualities of obeah consist of. Early on in the novel, Abena, Tituba’s mother, was raped by an English (white) sailor on the deck of a slave ship on its way to Barbados. This act of harm resulted in pregnancy and later on, the birth of Tituba. Once Tituba was born, the same master who sexually assaulted Abena previously, approached her with the same intention. In retaliation, Abena took a cutlass and slashed the sailor twice across his body. Abena was hung, being that she had committed a crime. She had not killed the man, but striking a white man was punishable by death. After the death of her mother, Tituba was taken in by Mama Yaya, who taught Tituba everything she needed to know about obeah; “Mama Yaya taught me about herbs. Those for inducing sleep. Those for healing wounds and ulcers. Those for loosening the tongues of thieves. Those that calm epileptics and plunge them into blissful rest. Those that put words of hope on the lips of the angry, the desperate, and the suicidal (Condé, 9)”.

At a young age, Tituba learned that the power of obeah was used for the sake of healing illnesses and grieving the death of loved ones. While taking a quick nap, Tituba had a dream and, in this dream, her deceased mother spoke to her. Tituba gained the power of now being able to talk to her loved ones who have passed on. With this power, she was granted guidance from the elders in her life. As Tituba develops into a young woman, Mama Yaya and her mother warn her about the troubles of men; “Men do not love. They possess. They subjugate. (Condé, 14)” Although these women are not alive, they still serve as motherly figures in Tituba’s life. With this scenario, Condé brings awareness to the emotional and mental impact that plagued Black enslaved women that was usually inflicted by men, no matter the race. By creating this mystical maternal relationship between the characters, it allowed room for Tituba to grieve healthily in a world that is determined to subjugate and oppress her. While she does face hardships throughout the novel such as enslavement, false imprisonment, the loss of her children and lover, Tituba can combat her personal and political burdens with the power of obeah.

Negative stereotypes of obeah will continue to be persistent until it is regarded and respected as any other religion. Due to the effects of colonialism, it is easier to erase and demonize an entire philosophy of natural and historical ways of healing rather than educating a society. The negative portrayals and unfair criticism directed towards obeah positions how the Caribbean and their population is perceived on a global scale. European interpretations of obeah were shaped by their racist ideologies, ethnocentric religious beliefs, and what their culture understands witchcraft and sorcery to be. Because the power of obeah practitioners could be used against Whites, Europeans in the West Indies constructed a narrow and thoroughly negative theory of obeah, reducing it to a kind of enchanted witchcraft, augmented by the administration of poisons (Bilby and Handler, 156). Although obeah was sometimes used to harm others, Europeans took the opportunity to manipulate the positive role obeah played in the lives of many enslaved individuals. Thankfully, individuals of the Caribbean literary canon such as Maryse Conde and Jean Rhys, include the healing and protecting realities of obeah within their stories to disassemble the negative labels attached to obeah.

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