Sunday, April 17, 2011

ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE ALLMUSERI

Readers have asked me about the origin of the Allmuseri tribe in Middle Passage for 21 years now. The truth is that they didn't spring fully formed from my imagination, like Athena from the head of Zeus, but developed gradually over several years and over earlier stories and novels. 

When I wrote Faith and the Good, which features magic (as a metaphor for art), I read 80 books on sorcery. In one book I came across an African name that caught my attention: al-museri. The Assyrians and Babylonians called Egypt by many names, one of them being "museri." In Arabic "al" is a definite article meaning "the." Thus, al-museri can be translated as "the Egyptian."

I jotted the name down in one of my writer's notebooks in 1972 or '73, and paid it no further attention until early 1976 when I began writing the short story, "The Education of Mingo." I needed a tribe for the slave Mingo in that tale to be from. So I plucked al-museri from my notebook, but since I didn't want to associate him with any particular African tribe, I dropped the hyphen, added another "l," and rewrote the name as Allmuseri. At that time I provided no details for this fictional tribe, but in another short story entitled "The Gift of the Osuo" in Dr. King's Refrigerator and Other Bedtime Stories, I wrote about an Allmuseri king named Shabaka, who receives from his wizards a piece of magic chalk that makes anything he draws come to life (As a cartoonist this fairy tale was great fun for me to write). In that story, and during that period in their fictitious history, the Allmuseri are Muslim.

I began writing Oxherding Tale in the mid-to-late 1970s around the same time as the two aforementioned short stories, and that novel has a very important character named Reb, an African coffin maker on the plantation of Flo Hatfield. Again, I needed a tribe for him to belong to. I made him an Allmuseri, like Mingo and King Shabaka. But Reb is the resident Taoist/Buddhist in Oxherding Tale. The way he developed as the spiritual mentor for the protagonist, young Andrew Hawkins, and the way certain details about Allmuseri history emerged as I wrote, made me think about the creative possibilities I could explore if I created an entire tribe from scratch, filling in all the details about their history, their language, rituals, religion, their god, all the minutiae an anthropologist would be interested in discovering. All my adult life I've been fascinated by cultural relativity, the different cultural interpretations we find in the world---so the imaginative challenge of fleshing out the Allmuseri, not just individually as I'd done earlier but as an entire culture, was simply too great to ignore.

The opportunity for doing that came in 1983 when I began writing Middle Passage and had to have a large number of captured Africans on the slave ship, The Republic.  (By the way, the working title for that novel was Rutherford's Travels, and I first envisioned it as a Swiftian tale, one that would see the crew encounter several different tribes; in an early draft they do find themselves among an island people after the Allmuseri take over the ship, but I cut that episode from my rewrite of the novel. Why? Once the Republic leaves Africa, I decided it was crucial that the protagonist/narrator Rutherford Calhoun not set foot on land because that would remove the constant danger of dying at sea, thereby diminishing an important element for suspense.) It was even my stated "goal"---fleshing out this tribe---when I applied for a Guggenheim fellowship to finish the book, which I received in 1988. 

What I wanted was a whole tribe of Gandhis, Martin Luther Kings, and Mother Teresas, the most spiritual people on planet Earth, who also just happened to be the first tribe of humankind. They are mysterious, magical, and philosophically they represent the complete opposite of Capt. Ebenzer Falcon's conflict-based, Western vision of the world. True enough, there are fanciful things rumored about them by white sailors on The Republic, i.e., that they have a second brain; and I did decide that they would have no fingerprints (their palms being blank like the Uncarved Block, a metaphor for the state of wu wei  in Taoist thought).

But a fair amount of Allmuseri spiritual practice and culture is drawn from actual practices in Africa and the Far East. For example, after Oxherding Tale was published, the French publisher for that book flew me to Paris for a week of promotion, and there I met the wonderful, late poet Ted Joans, who took me under his wing and showed me the sites. One was a museum that contained a statue of a deity from an African tribe he loved (he even kissed it). Ted explained that when outsiders arrive at that tribe, the tribal folk spit at their dusty footwear----a gesture meant to say, "You have traveled a long way and we wish to cool your feet," but Westerners always see this as an insult. That became an Allmuseri practice. In Kerala, India, a day each year is set aside for the practice of giving up a selfish desire. That became an Allmuseri custom. The way they experience and learn the Allmuseri language is the way a Seattle friend of mine described his study of Mandarin. That became a feature of the Allmuseri language. Finally, and on an autobiographical note, when I was kid visiting the Evanston, Illinois home of my maternal grandmother, Nana, I would sometime start talking about things I wanted or wished I had, as kids do. My grandmother replied to that by saying, "What you should do is wish in one hand, piss in the other, and see what hand fills up first." So, yes, that became an Allmuseri saying, too, one delivered to Rutherford by Ngonyama, whose name I think means "brave lion."

Years later, I suggested in Dreamer that King's double Chaym Smith is a direct descendent of Baleka, the little, African girl saved, then adopted by Rutherford Calhoun in Middle Passage, so Allmuseri blood also courses through Smith's veins.

For the last two decades, I've enjoyed a certain gleeful, maybe even wicked, pleasure based on the fact that some readers of Middle Passage believe the Allmuseri are a real tribe, as some people in Jonathan Swift's time believed in Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians were real. One literary critic even published an article arguing that I'd based them on a specific tribe on the African continent. Among literary scholars who have written well about the Allmuseri, Ashraf H. A. Rushdy deserves praise for his superb article, "The Phenomenology of the Allmuseri: Charles Johnson and the Subject of the Narrative of Slavery" (African American Review, Vol. 26, No 2). I strongly recommend that work of literary scholarship.

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