Dear Hollywood: Spiritual Dramas Aren't Just For White People

Two weeks ago, I watched The OA, an eight-hour TV series centered on a white woman who died, came back to life, and used her post-resurrection insights to help other people get their souls right. It was a good if deeply flawed show — and one of its biggest flaws was how pale it all was.

I really liked how The OA had concerns of spiritual well-being at its core, even if its execution relied too heavily on fluffy aphorisms and manipulating audience trust. But there was something jarring about seeing an ethereally affected white woman call herself the Original Angel, as if she had floated off a Renaissance painting of a biblical miracle and onto the TV screen. In this way, The OA is another example — like the 1996 John Travolta vehicle Michael, K-PAX and Powder — of how whiteness is treated as the default whenever a story decides to take a metaphysical look at the spiritual.

Think of any movie or TV show starring someone purporting to be an angel, and that angel will be white (although the roles of other, supporting angels may have more diversity). Modern religious epics still cast Caucasian actors as the decidedly non-Caucasian Noah, Moses, and others. Only recently has God been played by anyone other a white person, thanks to Morgan Freeman's gravitas and sonorous voice. 

The message that comes across from the aggregate paleness of supernatural/spiritual fiction like The OA is that the interior spiritual lives of black people and other folks on the margins don't matter as much. Usually, non-white characters appear, help out White folks, and get out of the way. It's the Magical Negro trope, and among its many problems is how the wants and needs of the Negroes themselves are never paramount. Even Morgan Freeman's God in the Almighty movies only shows up to help the white mortals he's granted omnipotence to.

This makes it appear that religion in general — and divine beings in specific — have no interest in non-white people. And the status quo is furthered by the fact that non-white characters never seem to have any religious turmoil or spiritual awakening in their own lives.

But that's not true. Because I know firsthand that stranger things happen to us, too.

Let me tell you about my own Brush With The Unexplained. It happened the last time I went to Haiti, which was the summer of either my freshman or sophomore year of college more than 25 years ago. Part of what I remember most was that I'd bought Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses with me to read that summer. I got lost in the books' magical realist polyglot chaos but I wasn't at all ready for what I'd see in the mountains of the Haitian northwest region.My mother was born in Port-de-Paix, a smaller town that was 8-12 hours away from the capital of Port-au-Prince. We arrived in the evening for a week-long visit and drove up at night. One of the people who was charged with getting us up north — friends of cousins, if I recall — had a gun by the driver's seat, which my mum took exception to. He said it was a necessary precaution because bandits robbed people on the rutted unlit roads. The older men also tried scaring me by saying that loup-garou would pounce from the bushes and trees off the side of the road. But I was old enough to know that the werewolves in stories made up by Haitian babysitters and relatives weren't real.

Nothing in my experiences growing up in Brooklyn and Long Island prepared me for country life in the rural Caribbean, where gas-powered generators sporadically provided electricity and drivers shifted cars into neutral gear on downhill slopes to save fuel. We stayed at my uncle's house, where I tasted avocados and mangoes that were pulled from the fields just minutes earlier. I saw a goat slaughtered like it was no big thing and only realised years later that I ate it that same night. I've generally always been a guy to go with the flow and rolled with these rhythms pretty easily. It wasn't until the Saturday night of our week-long stay that I encountered something that truly gave me pause.

Late Saturday afternoon, we hiked up the mountainside to have dinner en plein air. If I'm remembering it correctly, we were sitting in the ramshackle remains of a shelter on overgrown plots that had belonged to my mother's mother. There was no one else around for miles; at one overlook, there was a postcard-perfect church and school down by the shore miles away. We ate salted codfish with tomatoes and herbs, rice, beans, and avocados. Some beer and rum were being passed around and my mum definitely had a little bit of the liquor. My city-bred eyes saw the stars more clearly than I ever had before that point and, as my mum and her brother reminisced about the deaths and changes of people and places they'd known growing up, I fell asleep on a makeshift pillow.

Hours later, my mum's hollering woke me up. Mum suffered from high blood pressure most of her life and never let her children forget it. I learned to use an inflatable cuff sphygmomanometer and stethoscope before I was a teenager so that I could take her pressure. I woke up panicking that she was having a heart attack miles away from any sort of hospital. But she wasn't raising her voice in pain or fear. Instead, she herself was the fright, loudly declaiming about twins and single-birth children. I have a fraternal twin brother and grew up hearing how multiple-birth children were viewed with various good and bad superstitions attached to them. Something screwed-up happened? Blame it on the twins. Something unexpectedly fortuitous transpired? Must be the twin energy. (Though we largely heard the former more than the latter…)

What she was saying that night was different, though. I remember her spinning around and stamping her feet, seemingly not in control of her body. "We're all twins! We're all born by ourselves! We're all alone and we're never alone!," she repeated in between yells and exclamations. By that point in my life, I'd seen my mum drunk. She raised three kids by herself and rarely let herself get inebriated to the point of being a falling-down embarrassment. Still, I'd seen her enjoy giddy, loose, cackling buzzes. This wasn't that.

Mum wasn't speaking in tongues, either; I could understand every word she was speaking in Kreyol, the Caribbean language that grew out of French, Spanish, native Taino and West African tongues. Looking back, what I saw was more akin to what it looked like when people felt the Holy Ghost and caught the spirit in church. We didn't get down like that, though.

Catholicism was our faith and guilt was our glory. Hootin' and hollerin' like what my mum did that night was unseemly. She was melodrama on two legs and given to loud, emotional outbursts but I could always track the causality of those. If I stayed out too late, I'd have to hear about how her mother died when she was 10 and, if she still had a mother when she was my age, she'd never have done her wrong the way I was. This chanting was some shit I couldn't explain.

I distinctly remember searching the faces of my uncle, cousins and others who were there. They weren't smirking or holding in laughter. They were quiet and solemn, shocked when my mother snatched up a bottle of rum and took a swig. "Don't touch her," they said. "Let her be." When my mum collapsed to the ground after the ranting was done, my uncle cradled her, holding her up underneath her arms to make sure she swallowed some water. If a trick was being played on me, it was being played on them — and her — too. The morning after, my uncle told her what she'd been doing. She grumbled that no such thing had happened and that he was just trying to embarrass her in front of me. The matter was dropped and I knew better than to piss her off by asking after it.

Turning the sequence over and over in my head for more than twenty years leads me to conclude only one thing: something else was talking through my mother that night. Yes, I know how that sounds.

I grew up with the understanding that, once I told non-Haitian people where my parents were from, they'd make certain assumptions about us. One was that we came from a dirt-poor background. The other was that there had to be some sort of voodoo nonsense up and down my bloodlines. My mother scoffed at people who gave their money to houngans (vodun priests) and folks who lent belief to such folkways. Sure, she kept a dream interpretation book by the bed. And, yes, she'd invoke old wives' tales about not putting freshly ironed clothes your body for fear of getting burned — "you wouldn't be in such a hurry if you planned things out" — but giving credence to anything deeper than that was grounds for getting mocked. I did some rudimentary self-education about West Africa mythology and vodun practices as a younger person, because the curiosity burned inside me for years. How could I be so close, culturally speaking, to the fantastic and not want to know more? Whenever I'd try bringing it up, she'd wave me off by saying that stuff was just stories. It wasn't really real.

A book I read hungrily during my late teens, written by Liliane Nérette Louis. I remember one time we were picking up relatives from the airport and a gaudily dressed Haitian man using an ornate walking stick sauntered by with his family in tow. I can still see his face in my head: pointy beard over pointy chin, sharp cheekbones under intense, penetrating eyes. He wore a colourful headwrap under a wide-brimmed hat, along with a dark suit jacket and shirt, loose indigo jeans over thick-heeled shin-length cowboy boots. The woman and children with him were all in flowing white. My mum sucked her teeth in championship fashion and muttered, in essence, that she shouldn't have to see that dumb, country-arse shit in New York City. After our relatives were picked up, my mum proceeded to trash-talk the dude who — I gleaned from the conversation I wasn't supposed to be listening to — she suspected was a houngan. One who kinda rolled like a pimp from a blaxploitation movie, to boot.

That was years before the incident on the mountain. My mum would grudgingly acknowledge that vodun was part of our culture and history but that wasn't how she was living her life. The spiritual work she engaged in happened tidily, through charities and every Sunday in church. Later in life, after that visit to Haiti, she'd taken to putting out two cups of weapons-grade-strength coffee on a tray on the fancy dining room table that we only ate at on special occasions. My siblings and I were adults then and she was alone in the house most of the time. When the guilt trips squeezed a visit out of me, I'd see that tray. "It's for my mother and people who've passed away," she'd say when I asked. I knew that this was something that happened in Afro-diasporan cultures, some of the same ferociously preserved practices that got mangled and jumbled in the slave trade. Mum would scream at me if I ever brought up her own contradictions so I never mentioned how this could be interpreted as a branch of the same vodun she'd roundly dismissed over and over. So I was left to wonder why the woman who dissed that country-arse shit was doing something connected to it. Yes, she was getting older and was lonely and depressed a lot. But this was much more way out than she'd ever been, a change so unexpected that I wondered if she could even fully explain it to me.

One part of The OA brought all of these mum-memories flooding back to me. It was when Prairie talked about the invisible self that accompanies us all, a vapour-form of ideas and aspirations that exist as a deeper persona. It's the kind of entry-level observation that's a tenet of faith practices all over the world: you may not know it but you are more than the flesh that travels the mortal plane.

Or as my mum said it, "We're all twins. We're all born by ourselves. We're all alone and we're never alone." What shocked me all those years ago on the mountain wasn't what she said. It was how she said it. My mother was a lot of things: loving, difficult, smothering, sentimental, vain and defiant. Up until the very end, as chemotherapy sent her personality to extremes and cancer slowly took her from us, this behaviour never surfaced again. But this thing, a moment of metaphorical fire-breathing and — I can hardly even type the next word — possession? It only happened once.

It was a Weird Instance that left a mark on her, and on me. I don't have witnesses available to me to co-sign my account but I give you my word, dear reader, that it happened. Don't try to explain it to me. I'm long past wanting to parse reasons why. What I'll always want is a reflection of the cultural specificity and universal entertainment potential of this sort of happening — a thing I've been too stupefied and embarrassed to write about in detail — in the imaginings of the speculative fiction that I watch and write about.

Weirdness doesn't just happen to white people. I've seen proof of it with my own two eyes.

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