Gardner, Susan. “A Native American Ogun: transforming West African belief in Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the dead.” In: Andrade, Susan Z., et al., eds. Atlantic Cross-Currents/Transatlantiques. Lawrenceville, NJ: Africa World Press, 2001. Pages 147-154.
Susan Gardner (an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte) explores the concept of the black Indian, primarily as embodied in the character of Clinton in Almanac of the dead; she perceptively and affirmingly relates it to the Lumbee.
Gardner explains the early, voluntary contact between blacks and Native Americans, then explains that “Historically [the Lumbee] have rejected association with any African ancestry, since their struggles for self-determination and federal acknowledgment have taken place within ‘the system of racial classification and the institutionalized segregation of races based on it. The Lumbee struggle for a separate Indian identity has had to be fought in terms of racial ideology and its institutionalization’” (citing Karen Blu). She adds, later in the essay, that “To survive as socially-acknowledged Indian people, the people who became the Lumbee had to disown facts of their very selves.”
Gardner emphasizes, with examples from contemporary literature, the positive aspects of racial/ethnic synthesis. First, she notes that Toni Cade Bambara has “referred with pride to her ‘Lumbee African’ heritage.” Then, in Silko’s Almanac of the dead, the character Clinton has a “spiritual transformation through a personal synthesis of selected traditional Native American and West African beliefs.” Clinton, in his understanding of the “millions of black Indians. . .scattered throughout the Americas” (Almanac of the dead, page 742) and of the Native American as well as African ancestor spirits residing there, felt that “nothing could be black or brown or white only anymore” (Almanac of the dead, page 747).
Alice Walker, who speaks of black Indians in The temple of my familiar, states, “we are the mestizos of North America. We are black, yes, but we are ‘white,’ too, and we are red. To attempt to function as only one, when you are really two or three, leads, I believe, to psychic illness. . . .” (page 82).
Gardner sees Silko’s creation of the affirming Clinton character as remarkable, since—for the Lumbee and other Southeastern tribes—decades of disenfranchisement and legalized racial distinctions have caused them to avoid discussion of African heritage. The Clinton character prepares radio broadcasts for the “reborn, post-apocalyptic United States.” Gardner states that “Perhaps, when all the red-black peoples at last learn their own histories, and are no longer divided by the invaders’ definitions and politics, Clinton’s prayer to Ogou will be answered:
Ogou-Feray you magnet power!
Pull iron fragments together
gather the lost to your chest!
Ogou, your father-love heals them—
all the scattered fragments—
ancestor spirits gathered!
(Almanac of the dead, p. 414)