Corinthians I, Jarena Lee, Avatar

Me and my ambivalent relation to Christianity had me in chapel service more than frustrated today. Why?  I don’t know.  Maybe I’m too Catholic in practice and Yoruban in aesthetic.  Why do I have to stamp and shout?  Why do I always get picked on by the pastor because I don’t?  Why do I have to say Amen when I’m told to say Amen?  I’m like a damn bratty child.

And even still, this is one of my favorite passages from the Bible (from the King James’ version)

8: For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit;
9: To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit;
10: To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:
11: But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.

First Corinthians 12:8-11

Working cures.  Curing work.  As a diverse community of rabble-rousers, idealists and sorcerrors.  To each their own skills as they’ve been blessed with by the Holy Spirit (or whatever the equivalent may be depending on your faith).

And you’re job is to make use of it.

I guess I just need to read deep for my own interpretation of things.

And find my own inspiration:

“At the first meeting which I held at my uncle’s house, there was, with others who had come from curiosity to hear the woman preacher, an old man, who was a Deist, and who said he did not believe the coloured people had any souls — he was sure they had none. He took a seat very near where I was standing, and boldly tried to look me out of countenance. But as I labored on in the best manner I was able, looking to God all the while, though it seemed to me I had but little liberty, yet there went an arrow from the bent bow of the gospel, and fastened in his till then obdurate heart. After I had done speaking, he went out, and called the people around him, said that my preaching might seem a small thing, yet be believed I had the worth of souls at heart. This language was different from what it was a little time before, as he now seemed to admit that coloured people had souls, as it was to these I was chiefly speaking; and unless they had souls, whose good I had in view, his remark must have been without meaning. He now came into the house, and in the most friendly manner shook hands with me, saying, he hoped God had spared him to some good purpose. This man was a great slave holder, and had been very cruel ; thinking, nothing of knocking down a slave with a fence stake, or whatever might come to hand. From this time it was said of him that he became greatly altered in his ways for the better. At that time he was about seventy years old, his head as white as snow; but whether be became a converted man or not, I never heard….”

Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee (Philadelphia, 1849), 19-20.

See this is why I love the insurgent women I study.  She said he, “boldly tried to look me out of countenance.”  In other words, he gave her the side-eye.  Well, considering he was a slaveowner, side-eye isn’t even necessary here.  Because she knew that one word out of favor and she could be reprimanded, violently.  She knew this man “nothing of knocking down a slave with a fence stake, or whatever might come to hand.”

Still she spoke her mind.  And she ended up moving that man enough to say that Jarena had “the worth of souls at heart.”  She moved him by her own skill and her own ingenuity, creativity and boldness (Jarena Lee’s self-published narrative of conversion is one of the few conversion narratives we have written by an enslaved African-American women herself; the Schomburg has industriously digitized 52 such works as part of their digital archive/exhibit African American Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century).  A skill that came out of a place of spirit.  She was literally speaking truth to power.

But as if that wasn’t enough, Jarena also acknowledged that there was something even beyond her own skill that kept her out of trouble that day, because “yet there went an arrow from the bent bow of the gospel, and fastened in his till then obdurate heart.”  She put the escape from violence (because in this moment, that is exactly what it was) on God.  Something stepped in for her that day.

It seems trite when we look back sometimes.  It seems rhetorical or just part of an appeal to Methodist or abolitionist sensibilities.  The idea that the gospel stepped in to keep her from harm.  And maybe part of it is–maybe Jarena really thought the gospel stepped in around her and she just wanted to make it seem like she felt some sort of pity or mercy for this particularly heavy-handed slaveowner.  Maybe she was angry, furious that this man dare violate her space and try to make her feel small, worthless, dirty, insignificant and vulnerable and she actually was just thankful the gospel stepped in and stopped her from slamming a stake across his face.  Who knows?

But there is something real to spirit in the world of slaves.  There is something real to spirit in the history of people of African descent–something more than rhetoric or accommodation or just plain survival.  There is something we must take seriously about the world of belief when we look back into black history across the world–from the New Jersey, where Jarena Lee was born to the African cabildos of nineteenth century Cuba.

I saw Avatar last night and I think this is the theme that struck me most (I refuse to enter all of the debates about all the race bending, Dances with Wolves meets Pocahontas, White Man’s Guilty Conscience, White Man the Savior tropes of the movie.  The critics are right.  You know they are.  Let’s not go there).  The present-ness of Na’vi faith.  The fact of Neytiri‘s faith was as present to her as the bow she slung ever so Sioux-like across her shoulders.

Why did James Cameron have to sweeten up this bit of esotera for us by adding the scientific dimension (some biology bruh ha ha about 10.4 parts or cells or whatever that made Pandora, their world, a huge network of nerves and memories and therefore an actual living entity)?  It made it real–but it was also a poison pill because it twisted what we understand real is.  Jarena Lee’s arrow of the Holy Spirit was as real to her as the signs from Eywa that Lt. John Dunbar–I mean, Jake Sully of the Jarhead Clan had a “strong heart.”  As real as the moment at a bembé when Oshun makes her appearance.  So that still what is real remains only what science can prove.  And we know how well we poc deal in that.

Sigh.  I’m going to go lay down.  Think about Jarena Lee for tomorrow when some man (or woman) tries to “look me out of countenance.”  I’ve got words for them.  “Fear is not an appropriate motivator.”  Think about Jarena Lee being insurgent.  Or Zoë Saldana’s beautiful acting (and my new girl crush Michelle Rodriguez).  Get my warrior-woman up.

After all, my Gods can kick your Gods’ asses.

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