Brenda Marie Osbey and the Blending of Christianity and Hoodoo in New Orleans

By Allison Siegel

Brenda Marie Osbey writes poetry based on her life spent in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans that reflects the unique Creole culture in which we was raised.  Born on December 12, 1957, to Lawrence C. Osbey and Lois Hamilton Osbey, Brenda spent her childhood in a predominantly black section of the Seventh Ward and had always had a passion for writing.  While both of her parents had careers unrelated to the literary world, they had always had an interest in literature and instilled that interest in their daughter.  Osbey claims that by junior high school she knew that she wanted to be a writer when she grew up.  She pursued this interest Dillard University in New Orleans and Université Paul Valéry, Montpéllier in France before receiving her Master’s degree from the University of Kentucky in 1986.  Osbey has published various works based on Creole life in New Orleans, but her most revered work in the literary world is her collection of poems titled All Saints, which won the 1998 American Book Award.

Brenda Marie Osbey

The poems in All Saints are important to the understanding of the peculiar culture that New Orleans has had for many years.  Osbey creates a world in which the mysticism of ancient African hoodoo is mixed with the modern conception of jazz and nightlife.  The magic of Osbey’s collection in All Saints comes from her ability to depict how New Orleans culture comes from the nature of the place and is inherent in its people.  The community has passed it along through a circle of life process that perpetuates a way of life appearing to remain timeless, which is why it is so highly regarded.

An interesting dynamic that Osbey explores in her poetry is the struggle of balancing modern religion with long-standing tradition in New Orleans as the practice of African hoodoo intersects with the practice of Catholicism.  She opens her collection with the “Invocation” that speaks about the slave foundations that the city is built on – where the “homes, our streets, our churches are made;” and have “wrought iron into the vèvès that hold together the Old City and its attachments” (lines 4-6).  The juxtaposition of the iron wrought in shapes of Hoodoo saints and their little Catholic cousins shows the importance of both the hoodoo and the Catholicism in the culture of the city.  Osbey goes on to say that they both “continue to live among us” (lines 8-9).  Osbey is suggesting that the “little Catholics” are the cousins of the Hoodoo saints, not just two alternate forces working within the same space.  The city of New Orleans is built around tradition, and the practice of African hoodoo has been incorporated into the Catholic religion for the people – the bond is natural for them.

In the poem “Peculiar Fascination with the Dead” the interesting combination of hoodoo spirituality and Catholic practice can be seen as a family tries to grieve and the young girl who is the speaker grows in her understanding of this delicate balance. Carrying around silver coins, or burning incense, or sprinkling cinnamon over the back door are all hoodoo practices, but they are paired with the Catholic traditions of attending a wake and lighting votive candles.  By the end of the poem the young girl has experience with both religious practices and the girl experiences both religious practices and goes on to uphold the dual New Orleans tradition of honoring the memory of the dead.

While the merging of Catholicism and hoodoo was only explored in moments of death during the first two poems analyzed, it can be seen in practice with regular life in the seventh section of the poem “Seven Sisters of New Orleans” which a Catholic prayer is inlaid with a hoodoo prayer.  The Hail Mary prayer is shown on the left side of the page, while a hoodoo chant interrupts the flow of the lines and lists down the right side of the page showing how the two can be distinguished but never fully separated in this culture.  The name of the woman worshipped may be different, Mary in the Catholic prayer and Érzulie in the hoodoo chant, but they are both said to be a “mother” in charge of the mortals in the city.  This woman based worship is one reason hoodoo and Catholicism are so compatible as Barbara Eckstein explains, “Not only mutually influential, Catholicism and voodoo together shaped other systems of belief and practices of faith.  One such religion is the woman-centered, largely African American Spiritual Churches of New Orleans” (176).

Catholicism and hoodoo are blended naturally in Osbey’s works.  In Violet Bryan’s book, The Myth of New Orleans in Literature, Osbey is quoted to have said to believe that hoodoo is influential in the way that one perceives life principles such as the attitudes towards life and death, not so much in the practice of the rites and rituals – which explains its ability to be paired with Catholicism (Bryan, 154).  In Osbey’s essay “Why We Can’t Talk To You About Voodoo,” she explains why she thinks the pairing of African hoodoo and Catholicism is not much of an issue for New Orleans culture.  While European-Americans and other white peoples believe that voodoo practices are some sort of magic and holy water and the Eucharist in Catholicism are not, she doesn’t differentiate between the two.  As Osbey says:

Because New Orleans Voodoo is not Yoruba based, it relies neither on the intercession of multiple lesser deities, nor requires that African deities be “masqued” in the guise of Catholic saints. New Orleans religion recognizes a somewhat distant but single deity. The few Catholic saints that have been absorbed into the religion function both in their own right and as the servants of the Ancestors. They form neither the core of our belief, nor the object of anything that might be called worship. Rather, they retain their unique identities and function primarily as servants and messengers of the Ancestors. It is the Ancestors who are the heart of the Religion and true focus of our attention because of their proximity to us (8).

Osbey believes that the merging of hoodoo and Catholicism is merely another aspect of the mixed culture and dozens of influences that make up New Orleans culture.  The poetry that she writes reflects this hybridity and attempts to put into words the culture that is misunderstood by many who are outsiders to the city .  For Osbey, Catholicism and hoodoo are just as easily mixed as the French and Spanish styles of cooking in the New Orleans cuisine.

Illustrations

Baquet, H. Brenda Marie Osbey. Digital image. Creative Loafing Atlanta. N.p., 26 Sept. 2007. Web. 28 Apr. 2013. <http://clatl.com/imager/brenda-marie-osbey/b/original/1269749/1de0/arts_culture3-1_21.jpg&gt;.

Works Cited

“Brenda Marie Osbey.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 Apr. 2013.

Bryan, Violet Harrington. The Myth of New Orleans in Literature: Dialogues of Race and Gender. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1993. Print.

Eckstein, Barbara J. Sustaining New Orleans: Literature, Local Memory, and the Fate of a City. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Osbey, Brenda M. “Why We Can’t Talk to You about Voodoo.” The Southern Literary Journal 43.2 (2011): 1-11. Project Muse. Web. 18 Apr. 2013.

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