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Jambalaya : THE NATURAL WOMAN'S BOOK OF PERSONAL CHARMS & PRACTICAL RITUALS by Luisah Teish (Harper & Row: $17.95; 240 pp.)

February 23, 1986|Wanda Coleman | Coleman's most recent book is "Imagoes" (Black Sparrow). and

"Prior to the white colonization of the continent, West Africans believed in an animated universe,begins Luisah Teish's discussion on nature worship.

A reader's first inclination might be to dismiss this fusion of spiritualism, autobiography, poetics, anthropology and politics as feminist mysticism; mine was. Don't. Sympathetically (if defensively) written, "Jambalaya" should be taken in two lights: as a significant lay introduction to African diasporatic traditions--the remnants of African cultures virtually erased by the advent of slavery American-style, and as a possible path toward self-fulfillment.

Teish tells of her "salvation" through the practice of African root medicine, a.k.a. voodoo (the life principle), simultaneously providing new access to an ancient pantheon, daily problem-solving, blessings and methods of conjure. She gives cautionary and authoritative advice on distinguishing authentic voodoo from con artists and evokes the romantic atmosphere of her birthplace, New Orleans. She provides us with a brief history of this "lost" heritage within the context of today's concerns: dehumanizing technocracy, threat of nuclear oblivion, world hunger, toxic waste, abortion, etc. While so doing, she draws on, and makes linkages to, Amerindian, West Indian, and Latin American folk customs, and Christianity.

Acutely aware of the battle she faces in putting forth her vision/argument (the critical problem of being taken seriously), Teish arms herself with redefinitions: " . . . Superstition is a belief or practice whose origin and context has been lost to us and/or is in conflict with the beliefs of the dominating culture"; and, "Voudou is a science of the oppressed, a repository of womanknowledge."

"Jambalaya" often explained "mysteries" from my similar Watts childhood. I frequently gasped or laughed aloud, saying: "Oh, so that's what that was about!" Subcultural unravelings are abundant, curious, and sometimes downright funny. I found Teish's personal story the most intriguing part of "Jambalaya" but, unfortunately, dissatisfyingly sketchy. I also questioned the practicality of some of the rituals detailed. Otherwise, Teish succeeds in illuminating the marvelous and the magic of Africa seething beneath the Afro-American commonplace. Says Teish: "You must be appreciative of the cultures of others, and honor that which is good in all cultures . . . you must be prepared to give and receive." Amen.

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