Some Negro Superstitions


IT is an error to suppose that the superstitions of the negro are all gentle, mildly ridiculous, and associated with the hooting of owls, the baying of house dogs, and the appearance of jay birds in unusual numbers. He has many legends more virile, and indicative of a higher order of invention. The characteristic reticence of the negro accounts for the fact that these are not more generally known. The AfroAmerican is quite aware that“ white folks ” laugh at his notions, and this knowledge has fostered in him a secretiveness concerning his inner thoughts which very effectually limits them to the narrow circumference of his own brain. A negro will seldom talk on the subject of his superstitions, or indeed admit that he has any superstitions. The stories which are told in negro cabins at night, by the light of pine-wood boughs appropriated from the neighboring forest, and under the influence of which the crinkled wool of the auditors gradually straightens out into bristles, are rarely overheard by AngloSaxon ears. To be admitted to one of these séances, it is necessary to gain the gratitude and confidence of some venerable representative of the race, and by your sympathy with his narratives to assure him that you come not in the character of a scoffer or merely to laugh at his fancies, but are yourself of the opinion that there is something in heaven and earth not dreamed of in the white man’s philosophy.

The superstitions of the negro possess no logical order or sequence, and yet there is one central idea about which they all crystallize. This idea is contained in the word “ warning.” The negro interprets any unusual sight or mysterious sound not as a present threat, but as a warning of future danger. He is not in the least apprehensive that the uncanny things he sees will do him physical in jury. An ex-slave, who encountered the ghost of his ante-bellum mistress on the road one evening, ran four miles at the top of his speed, and fell exhausted at the door of the barn on a Virginia farm where I was visiting ; but he assured me the next morning that his panic was not due to the fear that the ghost would do him bodily harm, but solely to the fact that the appearance struck him as a warning of his own death, and that he fled from the idea rather than from the phantom.

We will eliminate from our discussion those superstitions which are distinctly referable to Anglo-Saxon sources. Many of the minor and a few of the more important superstitions of the negro are derived from the superior race to which he was so long in servitude. The darkies of Virginia and Maryland are firm believers in what they call the “ hell hounds,” a spectral pack of hounds coursing in the air ; and woe to the belated wretch who hears the baying of these ghostly dogs, for he is certain to die within the year. A colored boatman on the Susquehanna River related to me, with fear-protruded eyes and trembling lip, that about a month before, being on the water after dark, he heard the hell hounds above him in the air, crossing from one bank of the river to the other. He was unshaken in the conviction that a period would be put to his life within the following eleven months ; but in this uncomfortable opinion be was mistaken, for, after an interval of three years, he still lives. There can be no doubt that this superstition is simply a survival of the old English story of the Gabriel hounds, and that the negroes derived it from the English settlers of the middle colonies. The African has really made no change in the legend except to give these dogs a less celestial designation, and thus refer their origin to a region from which they might more logically be supposed to proceed.

The negro has no specific names for his ghosts, preferring to describe them by a circumlocution, but he is punctilious in assigning them to appropriate localities ; or perhaps it would be better to say particular localities, for in many cases the appropriateness is hardly discoverable. Ghosts which haunt the highway never by any chance appear in a footpath, and the spirits which inhabit the forest are rarely or never manifest in visible form, but make their presence known by strange whisperings, groanings, and inexplicable noises.

It must also be understood by one who would thoroughly appreciate the superstitions of this race that the negro is a great traveler. His journeys are short, being limited to a few miles slowly accomplished on foot or in an ox-cart, but in his own mind these excursions rise to the dignity of pilgrimages. He is always going somewhere, and hence it happens that a very large proportion of his superstitions are in the line of warnings against journeys which he projects, or upon which he has actually entered.

The solitary and unlucky traveler who, as the evening shades are falling, sets out upon an inauspicious journey, designing to visit some remote cabin, or with his imagination filled with the anticipated pleasures of a cake-walk, may encounter a series of ghostly experiences, all of which are for the purpose of warning him that the spirits are opposed to his design. Should his road lie along the public highway, he will become conscious, directly after passing a roadside quarry or crossing a bridge, that he is followed by the man with the iron face, one of the most grisly and gigantic phantoms ever created by the African imagination. Glancing warily over his shoulder, the traveler sees a man of colossal stature, whose tremendous and impassive features seem made of cast iron, following him with equal step, and sometimes imitating his actions. It is useless to run, for at the end of a breathless dash pursued and pursuer are in precisely the same relative position as at the start.

In spite of his name, it appears that the man with the iron face does not always preserve an absolute immobility of features. I am acquainted with an old negro who, on a secluded country road, was followed by this spectre for the distance of a mile,— which is unusual, as the pursuit does not generally extend beyond a few hundred yards. In this case the victim resorted to several expedients to baffle his ghostly attendant, and, finding these ineffectual, at last turned and faced him, when the mouth of the spectre expanded into an enormous and mirthless grin, which caused the negro to turn and fly without daring again to look behind him.

The striking incongruity connected with this and many other negro superstitions is that the spirits should be at the trouble of sending such a gigantic representative for the trivial purpose of cautioning a traveler against pursuing an unimportant journey. Should the person thus warned be too timid to return over the haunted ground, which he may do with absolute assurance of immunity from supernatural interruption, or should he be bold enough to persist in going forward, he may hear a snort, a shout, and a wild clatter of hoofs behind him, and as he shrinks to the side of the road this whirlwind of sounds will pass close beside him. This is the invisible horseman, another demon of the highway. The hoofs of his steed strike fire from the loose stones of the road and splash through the mud-holes, but horse and rider are alike unseen.

Should the trembling wight still continue to advance, he is liable to receive a third and last warning in the form of a streak or band of intense and midnight blackness lying across the road. If the night is dark and starless, the streak becomes luminous, and shines with a pale, unearthly glow. As the hesitating traveler stands and looks at it, the band is, as it were, rolled up by invisible hands ; and he is then at liberty to pursue his way, with the distinct understanding that he does so at his peril.

Strangely enough, I have conversed with a fairly truthful and intelligent white man who soberly and emphatically declared that he had himself seen this mysterious black streak. It was in the month of October, 1887, and the full moon bathed the landscape in a light almost equal to that of day. At an hour approaching midnight he was driving along the road, and, according to his account, thinking anything but ghostly thoughts, when suddenly his horse stopped and exhibited symptoms of intense fright. Looking out and ahead to learn the cause, he saw a band of indescribable blackness, about four feet in width, and extending from side to side of the road. He estimated that the appearance continued for live or six minutes, when, beginning at one end, it rolled up and disappeared.

Of course I advanced the theory of shadow, but he refuted this suggestion by inviting me to accompany him to the exact spot ; which I did, and there ascertained, to my complete satisfaction and his triumphant vindication, that there was no object within two hundred yards of the place which could by any possibility cast such a shadow as he described. Accordingly I have no solution to offer ; in fact could offer only one, and that one would cast a more than moonlight adumbration upon my informant’s veracity.

But to return to our unfortunate pilgrim, painfully working his way to terpsichorean revel or to the humble shrine of dusky sweetheart, and by this time frightened considerably more than half out of his wits. Should he think to baffle the spirits by turning out of the highway into the fields, he is liable to encounter a spectre of gentler but still startling character. Wending his way along the footpath and approaching the middle of the field, he finds awaiting him a beautiful little girl, dressed all in white, and with long flaxen hair streaming to her waist. She looks at him with beseeching eyes, and her extended hand points in the direction by which he has come. Should he not instantly turn and retrace his steps, this little girl undergoes a series of remarkable transformations. Her dress and hair rapidly change from white to blue, and from that to green, to yellow, to red, to brown, and finally to black ; after which she vanishes in a mysterious and unaccountable way.

In certain sections of Virginia, the spirits, moved by some reason of their own, substitute for the girl a little white dog, which stands up on its hind legs, as well-trained dogs do, and which manifests the same chameleon-like ability to invest itself with prismatic variations.

It is exceedingly difficult to induce the negro to discuss those omens which he regards as foretokens of death. Generally speaking, his esoteric belief is that ghostly manifestations of people he has known are to be thus interpreted. In addition to these there are a few particular and arbitrary phantoms which be regards as ominous of approaching dissolution.

I was informed, during a visit of some days to a Southern country house, that the negroes on the place were panic-stricken by the appearance to one of their number of a huge black dog with fiery eyes, which were described by the victim as being about the size of saucers. Going out to interview this man, a stalwart field hand, I found him engaged in the task of moulding a silver bullet out of a half dollar, and fitting it accurately into the muzzle of his antiquated shotgun. He authenticated the story of the spectral dog, and referred to it as a sign of his speedy death ; but he declared that if he could get another sight of the dog and shoot it with his silver bullet the warning would fail. I regretted that an early departure prevented my witnessing what was doubtless a canine tragedy. I learned from him, however, that the fate foreshadowed by a spectral manifestation may be averted by the aid of certain mystic observances.

I was long puzzled to account for the fact that negroes avoid with scrupulous care the vicinity of certain round holes which are sometimes found on farms, and which are doubtless evidences of juvenile enterprise in the pursuit of ground hogs. The only explanation I could get was that these were places where the spirits had dug for hidden money, — a reason which hardly accounted for the absolute refusal of the negroes to approach them. By dint of patient inquiry I at last discovered the true solution. The negroes believe that at night these holes prolong themselves indefinitely into the recesses of the earth, and that mortals may at these times hear the noises made by the spirits in their subterranean home, and may perchance witness the ascent of some spectre to the surface of the earth, for it is by these holes that they have their usual exits and entrances.

The only negro who ever admitted to me that he had listened at the mouth of one of these bottomless pits was unable, on account of a limited vocabulary, accurately to describe the congeries of sounds which ascended to his ears. I gathered from his disconnected and somewhat incoherent sentences that it was made up of a sort of horrible grinding and groaning, interspersed with shouts, trampling, fiendish laughter, and the neighing of horses, and that these sounds continued to ring in his ears for hours after he had fled from the vicinity of the hole.

The spirits of the forest and of deserted cabins belong more appropriately to the subject of negro witchcraft, for these are the auxiliaries that witch and wizard, by means of incantations, summon to their aid ; but as these spirits never lay aside the cloak of invisibility, our interest in them is correspondingly diminished.

The ghosts I have mentioned are only specimens of the phantoms invented by this superstition-ridden race. They might be multiplied almost indefinitely, and all the famous spectres might be exhibited in different garbs, characteristic of Virginia, Carolina, and Georgia.