Winner of the College Language Association Book Award for Creative Scholarship (2017)!!!
In the twenty-first century American popular culture increasingly makes visible the performance of African spirituality by black women. Disney’s Princess and the Frog, and Pirates of the Caribbean franchise are two notable examples. The reliance on the black priestess of African derived religion as an archetype, however, has a much longer history steeped in the colonial othering of Haitian Vodou and American imperialist fantasies about so-called ‘black magic’.
Within this cinematic study, Martin unravels how religious autonomy impacts the identity, function, and perception of Africana women in the American popular imagination. Martin interrogates seventy-five years of American filmic representations of black women engaged in conjure, hoodoo, obeah, or, Voodoo to discern what happens when race, gender, and African spirituality collide.
She develops the framework Black Feminist Voodoo aesthetics, or the inscription of African cosmologies on the black female body, as the theoretical lens through which to scrutinize black female religious performance in film. Martin places the genre of film in conversation with black feminist/womanist criticism offering an interdisciplinary approach to film analysis. Positioning the black priestess as another iteration of Patricia Hill Collins’ notion of controlling images, Martin theorizes whether film functions as a safe space for a raced and gendered embodiment in the performance of African diasporic religion. Approaching the close reading of eight signature films from a black female spectatorship, Martin works chronologically to express the trajectory of the black priestess as cinematic motif over the last century of film-making. Conceptually, Martin re-calibrates the scholarship on black women and representation by distinctly centering black women as ritual specialists and Black Atlantic spirituality on the silver screen.
Praise for Envisioning Black Feminist Voodoo Aesthetics:
“In this highly original and impeccably researched book, Kameelah Martin examines representations of black women in visual media, from Walt Disney films to black independent cinema, and from Hollywood Voodoo movies to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. A rich, comprehensive analysis of depictions of black female healers, spirit workers, and priestesses in historical narratives and contemporary expressions of African-derived spirituality, Envisioning Black Feminist Voodoo Aesthetics shines as an outstanding work of literary criticism and interdisciplinary scholarship that greatly enhances our knowledge of the significant intersections between gender, race, religion, and popular culture. This book is especially valuable for readers in academic fields such as Africana Studies, Film Studies, History, and Religion. ” (Yvonne Chireau, Swarthmore College)
“Kameelah Martin’s Envisioning Black Feminist Voodoo Aesthetics is a unique book long overdue in its serious assessment of the black priestess figure in popular cinema and art films. From the demonized representations of conjure women in early 1930s Hollywood movies to Lisa Bonet’s infamous portrait in Angel Heart from 1987, to the black feminist re-presentations of African spirituality offered in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust and Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou, Martin makes a compelling case for the need for black women’s counter aesthetics and “spirit work” when measured against the more popularized tropes of Voodoo practitioners as cunning, “magical,” and “mysterious” figures, which continue in such millennial films as The Skeleton Key and in Disney franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean and The Princess and the Frog. When even pop star Beyoncé casts herself in this light, with her groundbreaking visual album Lemonade, Martin is most successful in advocating for the power of transformative consciousness and healing rituals, represented by the black priestess and sustained in Black Atlantic feminist practices.” (Janell C. Hobson, University at Albany-SUNY)
“Envisioning Black Feminist Voodoo Aesthetics: African Spirituality in American Cinema paints a provocative picture of where and when black women religious figures enter the popular visual imaginary. In it, Martin makes a compelling case for considering the visual implications of black women’s spiritual appropriation anew, and includes wide-ranging forms—from popular and independent film to the imagery represented in Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade (2016)—to reveal how they resist, engineer, or “imaginer” a black female “Voodoo aesthetic.” While recent scholarship has explored the complex ways black women are depicted in popular film, few works have attended to visual representations through the lens of religion, spirituality, and especially, the role of the black priestess figure. Envisioning Black Feminist Voodoo Aesthetics does exactly that, and lays bare the varied possibilities of black female spirituality in the moving image form. This text is a must read for those interested in Black Feminist Studies, Film and Media Studies, Religious Studies, and Africana Studies.” (LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant, Williams College)
“Riveting reading. Eye-opening! Searing in its unwavering critique and indictment of America’s deliberate demonization of Haiti and Haitian Vodun that informed Hollywood’s stereotyped and xenophobic portrayal of Vodun/voodoo, Kameelah Martin’s Envisioning Black Feminist Voodoo Aesthetics offers a well-researched, brilliant analysis of Hollywood cinema that variously portrays Haitian voodoo. Employing her “black feminist voodoo aesthetic,” Martin critically examines “vintage Hollywood Voodoo,” from the early 1930’s Love Wanga, Chloe, Love is Calling, Devil’s Daughter and later Hollywood films, like The Skeleton Key, Angel Heart, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. This exceptional text is an absolute must read for all literary and film scholars and critics who are interested in African spirituality, its history, and its various manifestations.” (Georgene Bess Montgomery, Clark Atlanta University)
In Conjuring Moments in African American Literature (2013) I engage the ways African American authors have shifted, recycled, and reinvented the conjure woman in fiction. I offer a study of the conjure woman as a literary archetype in slave narratives to twenty-first century speculative fiction. Where there is a body of scholarship examining the nuances of other black female figures such as the tragic mulatto and the mammy, a gap exists where the conjure woman is concerned. Arguing that the conjure woman is one of the most adept agents of mobility, resistance, and self-determination in the realm of black womanhood, I demonstrate how the conjure woman has evolved as a bio-mythography used to resist the subjugation and marginalization of black women. I construct a critical historiography of the conjure woman as a recurring figure in literary texts of the last century, tracing her presence and function in African American literature through historical records, oral histories, blues music, and collections of African American folklore. More specifically, I engage issues of representation and stereotype, female agency and mobility, gender performance and blues music, ethics and Christian spiritualism, and the legitimacy of the conjure woman’s power. The conjure woman provides critical socio-cultural commentary, a role currently unmatched by other black female models and characterizations.
Reviews of Conjuring Moments in African American Literature:
“Martin’s work remedies a gap in academic scholarship that has overlooked the critical role that the conjurer woman has played in literature, and this work seems to elevate her to the status of cultural icon.” (A Year’s Work in English Studies, 2015)
“Advancing four primary arguments, Conjuring Moments in African American Literature calls for a closer examination of the black conjure woman as artistic trope and of spirit work by black women as a theme to assess this woman and her work as cultural icon and cultural tradition. A key strength of the book is the author’s familiarity with and engagement of a wide range of texts and ideas that enliven her cultural readings of the texts and the traditions it engages. Rather than simply examining the black woman conjurers’ role as an autonomous figure, Martin shows the conjurers relation to other folk figures, particularly these figures’ roles as patriarchal power brokers whose power the conjure woman subverts and challenges. A meaningful contribution to scholarship on Black women, their texts, and conjuring as folk tradition.”
—Dana A. Williams, Professor of African American and Literature Chair, Department of English, Howard University
“Martin provides ground-breaking critical insights for examining the role of the conjure woman in African American literature. She positions this often overlooked character as one with the potential to expand how we understand black womanhood, for the conjure woman is a vital force that is neither contained to physicality and patriarchal oppression, nor within ideologies of religion, gender, and sexuality. Martin’s work thus serves to advance conversations in black feminist criticism by offering a ‘discourse, vocabulary, and paradigm’ for interrogating the conjure woman alongside, but also separate from, figures such as the tragic mulatta, the mammy, and the jezebel. The project is well conceived and beautifully written in fluid language that makes it a pleasure to read. It is a must-read for scholars of African American literature, black feminist thought, and folklore studies.”
—Lovalerie King, Director of the Africana Research Center and Associate Professor of African American Studies and Women’s Studies, The Pennsylvania State University
—. “Womanism.” American Literature in Transition, 1980-1990. Quentin Miller, Editor. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 42-53. Preview of Anthology
—. “Conjuring Up an Image: The African American Healing Woman in the Films of Julie Dash & Kasi Lemmons.” Race, Gender, & Identity: A Social Science Comparative Analysis of Africana Culture. Africana Studies Vol. 5. (Sept 2013):7-18. Full text
—. “Caroline’s Nightmare: The Skeleton Key as Visual Echo of Charles Chesnutt’s Conjure Tales.” College Language Association Journal 56.4 (June 2013): 298-313. Full text
—. “Hoodoo Ladies and High Conjurers: New Directions for an Old Archetype.” Literary Expressions of African Spirituality. Eds. Elizabeth West and Carol Marsh-Lockett. Lanham, MD. Lexington Press, 2013:119-144. Full text
—. “Rethinking Ishmael Reed: Neo-Hoodoo Womanist Text?” On the Aesthetic Legacy of Ishmael Reed: Contemporary Reassessments. Eds. Paul Kareem Tayyar and Sämi Ludwig. Huntington Beach, CA: World Parade Books, 2013: 108-128. (reprint)
—. “Disney’s Tia Dalma: A Critical Interrogation of the ‘Imagineered’ Priestess.” Black Women, Gender, and Families. Vol. 6, no. 1(Spring 2012):97-122. Full text
—. “Charles W. Chesnutt and the Legacy of The Conjure Woman.” Charles Waddell Chesnutt: Placing A Stamp on America. Ed. Mary B. Zeigler. Spec. issue of Studies in the Literary Imagination. 43.2 (Fall 2010): 15-30. Full text
—. “Rethinking Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo: Neo-Hoodoo Womanist Text?” College Language Association Journal 52.2 (Dec. 2008) 111-131. Full text
—. “Introduction to the Special Issue.” Serving the Spirits: Women and Voodoo in Literature and Popular Culture. Kim Wells and Kameelah Martin Samuel, Eds. Spec. issue of Women Writers: A Zine. (Aug. 2008). http://www.womenwriters.net/aug08/intro.html
—. “Women and Voodoo: A Conversation with Jewell Parker Rhodes.” Serving the Spirits: Women and Voodoo in Literature and Popular Culture. Eds. Kim Wells and Kameelah Martin Samuel. Spec. issue of Women Writers: A Zine. (Aug. 2008).<http://www.womenwriters.net/aug08/jpr_interview.html>.
—. “Ansa, Tina McElroy.” African American National Biography. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2008. 50-51.
—. “Nunez, Elizabeth.” African American National Biography. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2008. 172-173.
—. “Hip Hop Soap Box: Pullin’ the Race Card in Mos Def’s ‘Mr. Nigga’.” Revolutions of the Mind: Cultural Studies in the African Diaspora Project. Edited by Dionne Bennett and Candace Moore. Los Angeles: University of California Los Angeles CAAS Publications, 2003: 111-115.
The Lemonade Reader: Beyoncé, Black Feminism, & Spirituality. Kinitra D. Brooks and Kameelah L. Martin, eds. New York: Routledge Press, May 2019. The Lemonade Reader Flyer
“Religion and Spirituality: Transportations and Transformations of Spirituality and Identity in the New World.” Section Co-Editor with Elizabeth J. West. The Routledge Anthology of African American Rhetoric:The Longue Duree of Black Voices. Vershawn Young, Michelle Bachelor Robinson, and Carmen Kynard, General Editors. NY: Routledge, 2018. Preview of Anthology
“Sankofa, or ‘Go Back and Fetch It’: Merging Genealogy and Africana Studies: An Introduction.” Guest Editor with Elizabeth J. West. Special Issue of Genealogy 2018:2. (Open Access Journal).
Guest Editor with Donald Shaffer, Jr. Black Transnationalism and the Discourse(s) of Cultural Hybridity Special Issue of South Atlantic Review 84.2 (Dec. 2017).Full text
Review of Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South by Paul Harvey. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012. South Atlantic Review 79.3-4 (Nov 2015):208-11.
Review of Water and African American Memory: An Ecocritical Perspective by Anissa Janine Wardi. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011. The Griot: The Journal of African American Studies. Vol. 34.1 (Spring 2015): 71-72.
Review of Tipping on a Tightrope: Divas in African American Literature by Aisha Damali Lockridge. NY: Peter Lang, 2012. College Language Association Journal. Vol. 55 Issue 4 (June 2012):392-396.
Review of Soul Thieves: The Appropriation and Misrepresentation of African American Popular Culture. Tamara Lizette Brown and Baruti N. Kopano, eds. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. The Journal of American History. (2015): 945-46.