Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #3: Black Spirits: The Ghostlore of Afro-American Slaves

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Gorn, Elliot J. “Black Spirits: The Ghostlore of Afro-American Slaves.” American Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 4 (Autumn 1984), pp. 549-565.

As historian Tiya Miles notes in her book Tales from the Haunted South (reviewed here last year), ghost story books and the dark tourism industry in general tend to ignore African-Americans or, at best, use them as exotic scenery or set pieces. African-American ghost stories certainly exist, but you have to dig a bit to find ones that are actually told by African-Americans.

Elliot Gorn is white, but this is an important article in terms of discussing Antebellum slave ghostlore and I don’t have a copy of John Mason Brewer’s classic Worser Times and Better Days: The Folklore of the North Carolina Negro (1965), yet.

The first part of the article is mainly devoted to discussing the late Gladys-Marie Fry‘s then-recent book, Night Riders in Black Folk History (1975). Gorn disagrees with Dr. Fry’s thesis that Antebellum slave owners intentionally used ghost stories to terrorize and control their slaves, but agrees with her that they most certainly tried to do so with recently freed African-Americans during Reconstruction (one example may be the story of the old slave who killed his master in self-defense, buried him under a bridge, confessed on his deathbed, and now haunts the bridge, still beaten by his abusive master).

For the former, Gorn cites a lack of evidence, among the voluminous source material of methods of control slave owners used and discussed, of using “hant” stories as one such method. Obviously, this situation was different in the post-War period, when one reason the Ku Klux Klan dressed in white hoods and robes was to pretend they were Civil War ghosts to frighten African-American ex-slaves. Gorn is skeptical, however, that very many of the slaves were taken in by this charade. The actual violence the Klan freely engaged in was far more persuasive.

Gorn notes that part of the difficulty in collecting African-American ghostlore from ex-slaves was their general reticence in sharing pretty much anything personal with white interviewers. They had learned the hard way not to overshare with whites, although some admitted to WPA interviewers during the 1930s that slave owners had not encouraged beliefs in, or discussion of, such lore. Slaves learned not to trust their masters – or any white person – and to limit unnecessary contact (or even discussion) with them well beyond the point of death.

Also, while they were not necessarily taken in by living white men pretending to be dead, some slaves found some particularly brutal masters so terrifying that they imagined them coming back from the dead in a classic example of abuse-generated PTSD. But there is a humorous side to “hant” lore that sends up overly superstitious people who see everything as supernatural. Gorn also notes that a major function of ghostlore was to strengthen strained familial ties with helpful ghostly ancestors, since the institution of slavery did not legally recognize any bond save that between the slave and the master.

Much of the rest of his article is a review of the literature on the topic. He notes the theory that African-American slaves held a largely animistic view underneath an imposed, but superficial, white Christian theology. He also notes that slaves tended to perceive ghosts as restless unless placated by grave goods and largely malevolent. This was in contrast to Anglo-American white views of ghosts as largely benevolent. The article ignores the fact that slave owners also included whites from French, Dutch, Spanish, and Celtic backgrounds (despite several mentions of New Orleans ghostlore), and that these could have radically different views on ghostlore than the English.

Celtic lore, for example, freely mixes ghostlore with fairy lore (some sources claim that fairies were the unbaptized dead). The Colonial Era Dutch-American Ichabod Crane is terrified by the Headless Horseman specifically because that figure is a powerful death omen for anyone who sees it. In Celtic lore, headless men (and especially those on horses) were some of the deadliest members of the Unseelie (Dark Fairy) Court. African-American and Celtic lore are both full of headless men, black dogs, restless dead who must be pinned into their graves, and spirits/fairies who can’t cross water. There are differences to be sure (for example, black dogs are seen as helper figures in some West African lore, whereas they are terrifying demons in Celtic lore), but not all Antebellum white culture was diametrically opposed to black culture.

There are not many stories specific to North Carolina in the article, though the author does cite the Frank C. Brown Collection early on. One story does appear about the ghost of a man who was whipped to death, that returns to haunt the plantation where he died. In another, a black woman is beaten to death by two white men and returns to haunt their sleep with her screams.

Gorn puts these tales in the category of avengers who strike from beyond the grave, freed from all earthly bonds and consequences by death. Even though they did little beyond beg or stare in mute reproach, these ghosts could be as terrifying to those they were avenging as to the targets of their revenge. They had a tendency to return to their masters’/killers’ plantation houses and drive them out, effectively taking over the house for their own. In a few stories, however, slave spirits came back to kill their masters outright.

Since the article came out in 1984, it is inevitably a bit dated. Though Gorn tries to put his work in context with other folkloric research, he doesn’t mention Jan Harold Brunvand’s classic popular study of modern urban legends, The Vanishing Hitchhiker (1981). Obviously, there is no discussion of the internet or how these old stories might have spread on it, either, since the World Wide Web did not yet exist.

More puzzling is Gorn’s avoidance of any discussion of Lost Cause mythology. Since he spends a good part of his article discussing Dr. Fry’s book, this is a pretty big omission. Lost Cause mythology was a major attempt by Southern white elites to recapture the post-Civil War narrative. In the context of their trying to intimidate ex-slaves with ghostlore, it would have made sense to discuss how the Lost Cause narrative fit into that effort. Ah, well.

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