No Zombies Here, Just a Bunch of Women Talking to the Dead

What inspired you to write Talking to the Dead?

I vividly recall the experiences that sparked the book. When I was an undergraduate, I was a history major and had read some books about South Carolina. Even then, I was struck by how what I read did not match my experiences as a lowcountry native. So early on, I wanted to reconcile that disconnect between what I read and what I knew.

I had the great fortune of beginning that work when I was an undergraduate through what was then called the Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF), and over the years, I continued to work out strategies for filling those gaps between written texts and lived experience. Once I discovered the synergy between my experiences as a child and the women in the study and how important talking to the dead was to us all, I realized that I had a niche for framing the disconnect that had disturbed me many years ago.

In the end, what began from a dissatisfaction I experienced as a Geechee girl who wanted to see myself and those I knew represented in written texts turned into a book that prioritizes the experiences of lowcountry women and narrates those experiences in the women’s own voices.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

That talking to the dead is a long-standing and common—though underexplored—practice in the South Carolina lowcountry. Most of all, while some might see talking to the dead as antithetical to or in conflict with traditional Protestant Christianity, it is a spiritual practice that is seamlessly integrated into the lives of the seven women in the study.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

A little bit of text and a lot of music! In terms of the written materials, there is this really rich historical material surrounding Mason Crum, a former Duke University professor and South Carolina native who was heavily influenced by the Social Gospel Movement and who wrote a very early book entitled Gullah (1930).

From his personal papers I learned that his family owned slaves and as a young man he grew up with what we now see as pretty conservative ideas about race, which were commonplace in his time. But the Social Gospel got to Crum, and he became an advocate for racial equality, which also influenced his work on the Gullah/Geechee and the United Methodist Church. I originally had a lot of that information in the book, but had to pull it out. So it is now a separate article for which I am trying to find a home.

And then there is the music. While I was researching, I recorded a good bit of the music sung in the churches I visited as well as lowcountry narratives told by Yenenga, one of the women in the book who is also a local storyteller. I talk about Yenenga’s stories and the songs I heard in the book, but there is nothing like hearing it for yourself. And in terms of cost, I did not feel comfortable including a companion CD of all that audio because it would have made the book really pricey. In the end, Duke Press graciously agreed to house a selection of the audio on their website.

So now, when readers get to the parts that talk about the music in depth, they can go and listen to it while they are reading. It is a pretty cool feature I think.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

That talking to the dead is somehow the same as seeing ghosts (and being haunted), or zombies! It is a funny thing how the moment you begin a conversation about the dead, people start making connections to ghosts and zombies. People who know me can tell you how much of a fan I am of The Walking Dead, World War Z, and other apocalyptic zombie-nation type stuff. I hate to disappoint, but no zombies or walking dead here—just a group of women who find communicating with deceased ancestors to be an affirming way of navigating their lives as women of faith.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I am likely breaking some cardinal writer’s rule, but I have constantly said that I wrote this book for me. Talking to the Dead has always been about reconciling that disconnect between what I read as a young adult and what I experienced growing up as a kid.

I was never really worried about audience. If I had to pick some other ideal readers though, it would include people familiar with lowcountry culture who find themselves or people they know in the text. So those folks, as well as anthropologists and scholars of religion who get the importance of documenting religious experience from the perspectives of the people living it.

Are you hoping to simply inform readers? Or entertain them? Piss them off?

Definitely not to piss them off, and while I think some will find the music “entertaining,” I would say my hope is to inform. In the broadest sense, there are a small number of people who are familiar with these communities in South Carolina, especially when compared to a locale that has such a rich and publicized religious narrative like New Orleans.

Then, when considering how black women’s religious experiences are marginally engaged within the few texts out there on the lowcountry, they are an especially small group. So, I am hoping that people will learn a bit about the subversive ingenuity these women use and about the Gullah/Geechee, but also that this book can contribute to the existing work that has expanded popular discourses around American religious expression.

What alternative title would you give the book?

I cannot think of an alternative title, which I think is a good sign. The title originally incorporated some of the Gullah/Geechee dialect, but that just did not work in terms of flow and feasibility of actually being able to find the book. “Talking to the dead” is the phrasing that perfectly captures the relationship between the living and the dead without compromising the active nature of the practice. So, I love it!

How do you feel about the cover?

Speaking of love, oh my goodness I love the cover! I have had lots of serendipitous moments with this book, and getting that cover tops the list. There were plenty of archival materials and photographs that would have worked, but the cover art by Jonathan Green is absolutely the perfect visual summation of my book.

Green is a popular artist from the South Carolina lowcountry, and his Cemetery piece features two women talking to each other while they have texts in their hands and a cemetery in the background. This seamlessly captures the living and active nature of talking to the dead, which, as I write about it, is as much about the women being able to communicate with each other as it is to the deceased.

I have to give a shout out to Heather Hensley and the imaginative design team at Duke Press for coming up with the idea and for Jonathan Green for his permission—he is the most generous artist I have encountered. I am honored to have his art featured on the cover.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written?

 I wish there were just one, and I will limit my reply to non-fiction! I am torn, so I would say either Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic by Erskine Clarke or The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. They are two very different books I know, but they both do an exceptional job of taking human experiences and historical documents—past and present— and re-constructing narratives around those experiences that are believable, compelling, and readable. They are so well written that they are difficult to put down, and I love that about them.

What’s your next book?

Not too long ago I finished a co-edited volume on Tyler Perry. In that vein, I am currently working on my book Pushing Weight: Religion, Popular Culture and the Implications of Image, which explores how black male comedians/actors Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, and Tyler Perry use fat drag performance to represent the black female body in religious practice.

That is a bit of a shift from Talking to the Dead, but they all explore the implications of cultural commodification.